Horns Aplenty, Helped by Tunesmiths and Songbirds

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Terence Blanchard seems to be showing up all over the place. Down Beat's jazz artist of the year in its 2000 poll, he was nominated for a Grammy earlier this year, provided a film score for the recently released Samuel L. Jackson film "The Caveman's Valentine," and toured extensively with his own quintet.

As if all that wasn't enough, he has released a new CD in which he has managed to tame temperaments of no less than four jazz divas--Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Jane Monheit. That would be a significant task for most artists, but not necessarily for Blanchard, who has revealed an impressive capacity to create theme-oriented albums, often prominently showcasing the work of other performers.

"Let's Get Lost" (* * * 1/2, Sony Classical) began as a tribute to composer Jimmy McHugh and, in some respects, it is an overdue acknowledgment. Perhaps because McHugh worked with several lyricists, often working on schedule for film and Broadway assignments, he has not received quite the amount of recognition that his talent deserves. This despite his long list of hits. Among the many included here are the title track, "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Don't Blame Me," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

How to parcel out that collection of classics among four singers, each with a distinct style? Blanchard says it really wasn't all that difficult, that certain songs seemed to fall naturally within the orbit of one or another vocalist. And to a large extent that's true. "Let's Get Lost" fits nicely into a characteristic mid-tempo Krall groove, the mood enhanced by an intimate exchange of phrases with Blanchard's trumpet.

"Too Young to Go Steady" is the perfect vehicle for Monheit's precocious sensuality, its inherent sweetness countered by the gently sophisticated swing of her rendering of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."

Reeves' elegant vocal resonates with references to the improvisational qualities of Sarah Vaughan on "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me." "Can't Get Out of This Mood" puts her gently simmering lines against Blanchard's intertwined trumpet phrases.

In Wilson's hands, "Don't Blame Me" is transformed into a darkly sardonic expression, its message communicated in short but intensely impactful chunks of melody. Interestingly, the definitively upbeat qualities of "Sunny Side of the Street"--a seemingly odd choice for Wilson--also work well, in part because of the turbulent undercurrent of rhythm created by Blanchard's arrangement.

Despite the divas, "Let's Get Lost" is not solely a vocal album. Blanchard, his vital musical companion and pianist Ed Simon, bassist Derek Nievergelt, drummer Eric Harland and, on several tracks, tenor saxophonist Brice Winston offer equally compelling instrumental takes on other McHugh classics--"You're a Sweetheart," "Exactly Like You" and "Lost in a Fog" among them. The combination results in yet another fine Blanchard outing, a further representation of his capacity to produce albums with an interest level well beyond the familiar assemblages of themes and improvisations. (Blanchard is scheduled to appear with Wilson at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in a June 30 concert produced by the Jazz Bakery.)

Nicholas Payton, like Blanchard, is a New Orleans product, one of a string of fine trumpeters to follow in the footsteps of Wynton Marsalis. He also seems to favor a thematic approach to recording. "Dear Louis" (* * * , Verve) is an unusual, particularly focused view of music associated with Louis Armstrong. In effect, it's a portrait viewed through the filter of Payton's contemporary perception.

Leading a 12-piece ensemble, Payton has created arrangements of a wide set of Armstrong-related numbers--"Potato Head Blues," "Hello, Dolly!," "Mack the Knife" and "West End Blues" among them--that often seem to recall the writing of Gil Evans at least as much as the Satchmo's trumpeting. At times, the stylistic variation seems a bit out of sync, rescued by his virtuosic, imaginative, solidly New Orleans-based playing.

And, while we're at it, let's add Tom Harrell, another trumpeter who has made a practice of producing albums that resist categorization. On his latest release, "Paradise" (* * 1/2, Bluebird/RCA Victor), he performs with several ensembles, supplementing--and occasionally contrasting--a basic jazz quintet with harp, viola and two cellos. The compositions are equally diverse, rooted in driving, straight-ahead jazz, liberally sprinkled with Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms, sometimes drifting into a classical music frame of reference.

While there is much that is fascinating about the project, it provides few easy passages into the music. Harrell is a skillful orchestrator, and, in a piece like "Nighttime," he is capable of placing a lovely melody in a touching musical embrace. But his trumpet and fluegelhorn playing--usually his most potent musical weapon--is not quite up to his typical high level. Despite his compositional skills, there are times when the listening rewards don't always justify the effort to fully experience the music.

The soloing of trumpeter Darren Barrett on his second album as a leader--"Deelings" (* * 1/2, J Curve Records)--can hardly be questioned on the basis of his technical virtuosity. The winner of the 1997 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Trumpet Competition, he seems capable of playing anything that comes to his mind, no matter how demanding. But here, as in a performance at the Jazz Bakery in December, his playing does not yet appear to have found a personal voice. Because the album was produced by veteran jazz artist Donald Byrd, it's not surprising that most of the music takes a determinedly mainstream path. And there are many instances in which both Byrd and Freddie Hubbard seem present as a musical subtext in Barrett's improvisations. But one is left, ultimately, with the wish that the extraordinary skills present on every track would focus more on individual expression and less on reprising styles and sounds of the past.

If one trumpet can produce an appealing sound, how about four or five? "Fanfare & Fiesta" (* * * , Justin Time) features the Hugh Ragin Trumpet Ensemble with special guest Clark Terry. In addition to Ragin and Terry, the other trumpeter participants, performing in varying combinations, are Dontae Winslow, Omar Kabir and James Zollar.

The ensemble trumpet passages are great fun, never limited to simple block harmonies, often disintegrating into wild-eyed free improvisations. But there's much more, including Terry's inimitable scat singing (which should be required listening for any vocalist who ever tries this difficult art) and the soloing of each talented player. (Ragin, Winslow, Kabir and Zollar are not familiar names, but each has much to offer.)

The wide musical interests of Ragin, as the album's leader, reach from Terry's fleet (and appropriately titled) "Finger Filibuster" and amusing "Spacemen" to a pair of numbers by Lester Bowie and some equally provocative originals. This is one of those eccentric but fascinating albums that could easily slip by without notice, which would be a shame. It deserves to be heard.

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