Found and Lost

Terence Blanchard Revisits Jimmy McHugh

Terence Blanchard's reach and tone have broadened just about equally in the 15 years since he graduated from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. He has tested his skills as trumpeter, composer, and bandleader in a variety of overlapping projects: the quintet with Donald Harrison, formalized during a sabbatical from Blakey and continued through 1989; several film scores, most for Spike Lee; on-and-off-again groups, in recent years framed around his collaboration with pianist Edward Simon; and 11 Columbia or Sony Classical discs, each a defined project, lending a certain meticulous drama to his recordings. His latest, Let's Get Lost, differs from the rest yet remains true to a cycle that alternates originals (as on its predecessor, Wandering Moon) with classic songs—this time a salute to Jimmy McHugh, abetted by the three most fashionable under-50 jazz singers (Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, and Diana Krall) and one who wants to enter their ranks (Jane Monheit). It should be more fun than it is.

McHugh is an ideal choice for a jazz survey. A prolific composer for stage and screen, he wrote sundry jazz standards, including trademark numbers associated with players as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Nat King Cole, Johnny Hodges, Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk, and James Moody, who turned "I'm in the Mood for Love" into bebop's only jukebox perennial. McHugh jazzed up stages with Blackbirds of 1928 ("I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "I Must Have That Man," "Digga Digga Doo") and the Cotton Club reviews; he was instrumental in getting Ellington his Cotton Club audition and wrote several pieces for him, like "Harlem River Quiver" and "Harlemania." He was said to have purchased "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" from Fats Waller, who his son claimed was so upset they became hits he would not allow them to be played in the house; this seems unlikely, since Waller's record of the former helped make it a hit. Ellington claimed, somewhat cryptically, to be pleased that a rhythmic figure he introduced in "Birmingham Breakdown" was popularized by McHugh in "The New Low Down." But McHugh did not have to steal; he wrote hundreds of songs and dozens of hits over three decades, from "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" in 1924 to "Too Young to Go Steady" in 1955. Blanchard has soundly chosen 11.

Blanchard is one of the most distinctive trumpet players of his generation, but his trademark, a purring glissando, has become fussy and predictable. It marked the first notes of his unaccompanied "Motherless Child," on his eponymous first album, became more pronounced by the first notes of "Unconditional," on Romantic Defiance, and is now an intrusive tic that, far from underscoring the very real lyricism of which he is capable, disables his solos, compromising invention with a mannered self-consciousness. Let's Get Lost is pocked with these squeezed notes, which cross Rex Stewart's half-cocked whimsy with Ruby Braff's meditative irony but are too overworked to serve either purpose. During a recent set at the Village Vanguard, he put aside the glisses and whimpers during a driving "I'm in the Mood for Love," and his vigorous playing suggested a happy repose that is increasingly hard to find on his records, however handsomely programmed or arranged.

That same tune is a highlight of the album. The mannerisms are more apparent than at the Vanguard, but he controls them and crafts a pleasant solo. Tenor saxophonist Brice Winston follows with the headiest blowing of the session, and when Blanchard returns they play in tandem, producing the first head of steam on an album halfway to the finish line. Blanchard's best solo is on "Exactly Like You," where he eschews stylistic habit in favor of the higher altitudes of improvisation. If only the whole album were as smartly played as these pieces, both arranged by Simon, who combines a simple unison voicing with tempo changes and canny harmonic substitutions that provide a contemporary tang. Simon also wrote endings, which are especially welcome on an album that often runs to ground with 40-second fade-outs. Seven tracks are given to the singers.

This is Blanchard's third homage with voice, after The Billie Holiday Songbook, with Jeanie Bryson, and The Heart Speaks, with Ivan Lins singing his own songbook. They are all strangely subdued, sometimes to great effect, as in Bryson's poised "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," her phrasing dispassionately removed from the driving background as she places her notes in all the right places. Singing McHugh, Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall are most effective, especially when they mine the similar veiled low notes of their contraltos, the latter suggesting the influence of the former. Both have come a long way. Krall, whose Nat Cole repertory portended a callow gimmick, now sounds aged in the wood, and her "Let's Get Lost" is intimate and sexy, keyed to a vamp and backed by her own piano, which capers suavely with Blanchard's trumpet, before the long, long fade.

Wilson is more playful and rhythmic, phrasing "Don't Blame Me" on the beat, steered by a strong bassline, and suggesting a depth that evades the other singers. She tends to recompose every song she sings, curving all the edges until they fit her mold—you could say the same of Holiday or Abbey Lincoln. As a result, she generates a degree of suspense as to how she will shape a tune, which notes will get pressed in what direction. Blanchard's obbligatos are less precious than elsewhere, but Wilson introduces her own mannerism, hollowing out her voice, like a trombone, to accent an occasional note. She takes more risks, in her dour way, with "On the Sunny Side of the Street," pitched so low she has to speak a few phrases, and altering her vocal mask a few times. At the Vanguard, the surprising thing about Wilson (who, along with Monheit, appeared for two nights of Blanchard's gig) was how much star power she packs. Not too many years ago, she all but hid behind the band, barely acknowledging the audience. Stage presence isn't something you are born with—even Sarah Vaughan, awkward at the outset, had to learn it. So has Wilson.

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