Terence Blanchard listens for the hunger.
As a veteran jazz educator, composer and longtime bandleader who has fostered dozens of careers through his small ensembles, Blanchard, who turns 52 next month, is consistently exposed to burgeoning young musicians trying to catch his ear.
“I hear plenty of guys who are talented, but I’m looking for a sense of uniqueness and passion and drama in what they are playing. I’m listening for people who are hungry, who have to have a vehicle to express themselves,” he said by phone between classes at the Henry Mancini Institute in Coral Gables, Fla., where he has been artistic director for three years.
Blanchard knows firsthand how the visceral need for expression can overwhelm inexperience and jittery nerves. He was 19 when he replaced Wynton Marsalis as trumpeter for Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. (Marsalis, a childhood friend, vouched for him.)
In the decades since, his hunger has pushed him into different musical directions. Blanchard has composed more film soundtracks than any other jazz artist. He wrote his first opera last year, about boxer Emile Griffith, and has been commissioned to compose another. The next couple of years will be spent working on two more film scores, composing for a string quartet and for a children’s program put on by the Kennedy Center. He also programs jazz events for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Then there is life with his wife and four children in his native New Orleans.
Through it all, Blanchard never neglects his improvisational roots in small-ensemble jazz, regularly taking time to record and tour with his working quintet. He will showcase his latest album, last year’s highly praised “Magnetic,” Monday and Tuesday at the Dakota in Minneapolis. Listeners can expect bristling, high-wire exchanges and innovative renditions of the songs on “Magnetic,” all composed by members of the group.
Blanchard said joining his band can be “a lifetime appointment” — saxophonist Brice Winston has been with him nearly 15 years. But he expects and encourages his cohorts to follow their muse — it stimulates new experiences when they return and creates an opening for a new voice when they don’t.
Last year, the quintet’s regular drummer, Kendrick Scott, released his third album since joining Blanchard, produced by former Blanchard bassist Derrick Hodge. Quintet pianist Fabian Almazan is set to release his second album, and debut for the Blue Note label, this spring. Scott won’t be present for the Dakota gigs, so Blanchard will turn to 29-year-old Justin Brown, who finished second in the 2012 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition, and is already compiling an extensive résumé. Brown will team with 22-year-old bassist Joshua Crumbly, who as a three-year veteran is the newest regular member of the band.
Asked if he recruits new talent based on how they’ll fit in, Blanchard scoffed incredulously. “I don’t want them to fit in; I don’t want seat-fillers. They need to bring something to the table that will make us grow.”
Where Blakey was a musical mentor, Blanchard cites the influence of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter — both former sidemen for Miles Davis who went on to forge their own distinctive careers — as important teachers in the art of leading a band.
“In jazz we are taught the history of the music before we get a chance to create. It can be a very daunting experience,” he said. Hancock and Shorter reinforced his belief that both he and his band members need to “trust our ideas about creativity and don’t overthink it when we are improvising and composing.”
The results are impressive. Among Blanchard’s five Grammy awards are two for best jazz instrumental solo and two for best jazz instrumental performance — and he was nominated for another last year for a track from “Magnetic.” It is that type of inspiration, and hunger, that has him touring in clubs.
Just because the group will play a similar set list every night doesn’t mean that the performances won’t change dramatically. “I was just illustrating that point using YouTube videos with a student,” Blanchard said. “I brought up two versions of the same song where [his pianist] Fabian introduced it one time up high with a certain type of energy and the next night played it two octaves lower and really changed things.”
He paused, and said in a softer voice, “There is a kind of beauty about how what I am doing as a performer and an educator comes together. It is why I can’t classify or label my music, except to say that it is a representation of who I am as a person.”