updated 6/15/2005 3:17:37 PM ET 2005-06-15T19:17:37

One of the biggest challenges for trumpeters delving into electric jazz is avoiding the towering influence of Miles Davis.  Perhaps it’s impossible to do so without some subtle trace of the Prince of Darkness, but as Terence Blanchard proves on his brilliant new disc, Flow, you don’t have come off like a Miles-clone when employing electronica flourishes.

Whereas most trumpeters follows Miles’ innovations by either plugging in the mute for a piercing, vibrato-less timbre or attaching a wah-wah pedal for those ghostly textures, heard on Miles’ early ’70s albums, Blanchard relies on the natural sound of his trumpet, projecting a lustrous, clarion tone. Over the past two decades, he’s also devised his own vocabulary, rooted in hard bop yet complemented with elements of funk, blues and free jazz -- all of which is animated by idiosyncratic nuances, such as pinched high notes, guttural growls and humorous whine and wheezes.

Compositional acumen
Then there’s Blanchard’s compositional acumen.  Not only is he one of his generation’s most gifted jazz writers, he’s risen to the upper echelon of film scorers, thanks to the string of Spike Lee movies he’s worked on.

For an artist, who’s sometimes unjustly aligned with jazz purists, Blanchard spellbinds on Flow, coming up with his most provocative disc in his career.  He steers away from making any embarrassing nods to electronica pop idioms like techno, broken beat, hip hop or trace, and delivers sometimes that’s fresh yet doesn’t sound completely out of character.

First of all, Blanchard doesn’t use the electronica flourishes as merely cosmetic gloss, he employs them orchestrally, never allowing them to overwhelm the bristle interaction and improvisation zeal associated with modern jazz.  Also, he doesn’t dumb-down the music into prosaic grooves.  Sure the three-part “Flow,” is distinguished by Derrick Hodge’s funky bass vamp, but it slowly crests into an invigorating jazz expedition with Blanchard’s slinky melody growing more intense and flamboyant as he soars over Kendrick Scotts’s lickety-split drum taps and Lionel Loueke’s electric guitar yawns.

The best usage of electronics, though, appears in Loueke’s “Wadagbe” and Aaron Parks’ “The Harvesting Dance.” The former is the disc’s most evocative piece, which starts off with Loueke’s percussive melody, engulfed by an eerie swoosh of ominous electo-clouds, rough-hewn textures and West African yelps and chants.  The “Intro” crescendos for thrilling four minutes then nestles into an extravagant, 10-minute tour-de-force, on which Blanchard’s trumpet enters, blowing a plaintive melody alongside Loueke’s lulling guitar, both propelled by Scott’s martial beats and Hodges’ elastic electric bass. Soon Parks’ piano comes in, affording the song with an impressionistic sheen, while Brice Winston adds more harmonic and melodic fabric on the soprano saxophone and EWI (electric wind instrument). Blanchard and Winton engage in some heated improvisations, which are animated by Howard Drossin’ cinematic electronica orchestrations, marked by elephantine stomps and sustained synth-vocal chords. “Wadagbe” is one those goose-bumps inducing compositions that brings the best out Blanchard and his audacious ensemble. 

‘Harvesting Dance’
“Harvesting Dance” is just as transportive but whereas Loueke’s piece emphasized his Benin, West African roots, Parks’ composition projects a Spanish-Moorish feel, as Hodges lays down a Latin-tinged groove, decorated by Scott’s prancing tambourine and Drossin’ chirping soundscapes.  Parks sets up the romantic mood with an alluring piano accompaniment as Blanchard and Winston (on tenor sax) state the troubadour-like melody.  “Harvesting Dance” unfolding episodically with tranquil transitions uniting blistering telepathic dialogues between Blanchard and Parks, a dazzling electric guitar solo from Loueke and a Scott’s adrenaline-fueled drum essay. Throughout, Drossin’ synth programming underscores “Harvesting Dance” with picturesque soundscapes that add drama and intrigue.    
Even when the electronica embellishments aren’t there, Flow retains a sense of continuity.  Indeed, the disc is a persuasive testament to Blanchard’s sublime musicianship and to his stellar band that’s he’s able to pull off such a provocative jazztronica album: one that would have made Miles proud, because of its individualism.

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