That trumpeter Terence Blanchard has one of the best bands in jazz is no secret.
Followers know the quintet for its keen sense of melody, drama and adventure, as well as the phenomenal empathy its members share. Less remarked upon, but brought into sharp focus at Blues Alley on Thursday night, is its flair for atmosphere.
This isn’t a profound insight; no trumpeter who uses electronic delay as substantially as Blanchard — throughout long takes of “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Hallucinations” (both from the quintet’s new CD “Magnetic,” as was the entire set) — can argue that atmospherics aren’t a priority. It gave Blanchard’s already haunting sound — a dark, enigmatic quality — that loomed over the whole proceeding. The younger musicians he employs were no less committed to that aspect.
Blanchard’s frontline partner, tenor saxophonist Brice Winston, attacked his own composition “Time to Spare” without such effects. Instead he used quick, staccato phrases surrounded by silences that were much longer. The ballad “Jacob’s Ladder” found him working slow, steady and soft-voiced.
In the latter case, Winston was augmented by bassist Joshua Crumbly, the tune’s author, whose equally muted figures were plotted carefully for maximum suspense and harmonic tension. It lent an air of shrouded intrigue to the piece. Crumbly would do similar work on “Hallucination,” punctuating pianist Fabian Almazan’s winding, Dvorak-like intro with bare, exquisitely light notes. Almazan was something of a wild card: A tremendous, perhaps tempestuous talent, the 29-year-old could play sensitive openings, then whip them into a frenzy of minimalist repetitions.
Drummer Kendrick Scott, in the meantime, did quite a bit of heavy lifting in the mood department. As original and skilled a colorist as drummers come, Scott made lush use of his cymbals, in particular with wondrous cymbal work on “Hallucination” and thoughtful but passionate fills on “Time to Spare.”
There were two breaks from these waves of ambiance. The third of the set’s four tunes was “Don’t Run,” a 12-bar blues played in a spare, bebop style; it often left Almazan quiet while Scott and Crumbly played breakneck swing, and Blanchard and Winston simply jammed. The other was in Blanchard’s brief words to the audience, before and after the set’s closer (“Jacob’s Ladder”). Perhaps sensing the need to lighten things up, he went to a favorite subject: “I’m in D.C. the week the NFL season starts. How’d that happen?” He cracked. “Godd--- Redskins.”
West is a freelance writer.