When trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard first started trying to write something about Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees, he thought it was too vast. 'People asked me, "When you first went to your mother's house (an experience poignantly portrayed in director Spike Lee's documentary When The Levees Broke), did you hear anything?' I said, "No, the only thing I heard was the wind.' There was no life, no cars, no dogs, nobody walking the streets. Right now we take this noise for granted." He gestures out the window of his home near Louisiana Avenue where cars pass and the rain drizzles down. 'That noise, that background ambience, that represents life. When you don't have it, it's a jarring experience." Blanchard eventually did take his thoughts and feelings about this jarring experience and composed a beautiful record for jazz band and orchestra called A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina. He and his quintet will perform the New Orleans premiere with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday at Tulane's Dixon Hall.
The music will be familiar to anyone who viewed Lee's documentary, for which Blanchard supplied the soundtrack. Blanchard says, 'I did the music for Spike's film, and I couldn't let it go. My wife (producer Robin Burgess) came up with the idea to expand the themes for band and orchestra. I felt it would give me more colors to choose from for the sonic picture." Not only did Blanchard contribute music for this, but all of the members of his band wrote pieces for it. 'Once we got to the studio, it was challenging to record the music. We all felt a big responsibility to be honest about what happened here and how we feel about it and a big responsibility to do it in a tasteful manner. The band " they're all great composers, and what they brought to the table is a significant part of the story. That speaks highly of the human nature and universal part of the story of survival. They were all affected by this, and the music they came up with is brilliant and right on point."
Like many others recovering from the flood, Blanchard found the process crowded with emotions and practical concerns. 'Writing the music was easy in that it flowed, but it was hard because I didn't want to look at those topics. I didn't want to look at those images and sit and deal with that. Also, at that moment, we were dealing with my mom and where she was going to live. Like everybody else, in the midst of doing your job, we were faced with the realities of survival in the city."
Blanchard has written for orchestra before, but never like this. 'In writing the arrangements, it was an interesting experience because in a weird way all of my training and experience brought me to that moment. Why did I start writing and when did I start writing for film and all the experience I've had as a jazz musician, and then to be faced with a situation where I had to bring all of that to bear, not only to tell my own story but the story of many other folks in the city."
The record has emotional depth unique to a musician who has logged years on the road " with his own groups, with fellow New Orleanian Donald Harrison Jr., and before that in master drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers " and who has prolifically composed pieces for his band and film soundtracks. A Tale of God's Will is at times universal, hopeful, majestic, ominous, defiant and tragic. The band and the orchestra mesh in such a way that they complement each other. There are even brief chants and wordless vocals. One of these (the first piece, 'Ghost of Congo Square") gave Blanchard the idea for the title. 'I struggled with what to call it. I didn't want to call it "The Katrina Suite.' That's not too creative," he laughs. 'I kept thinking about it and I had experienced what many others had experienced, and we ask the same questions: "Why did this happen? Who is responsible? Who didn't do their jobs? Who is going to jail?' But I still felt kind of empty. Then I had to go back to my upbringing. I grew up in the church and we're taught that God works in mysterious ways. I kept saying "God's will be done.' And it turned into a Tale of God's Will. When we were doing the "Ghost of Congo Square,' I kept hearing that chant, "This is a tale of God's will.' So I decided that that would be the title of the CD."
The band has been touring with this record without the orchestra, and the reception has been very positive. 'People find it an emotional experience. People have come up in tears. One guy said that he lost a dear friend in the hurricane, and in the year and a half since he hadn't properly grieved. He got the CD and that allowed him to grieve properly." Blanchard leans forward and continues, 'We feel a responsibility to play this music, even though it takes us into some very dark places each night. We did a week in a club in New York, and by the end of the week we were all spent. And we began to realize why. Playing this music takes a heavy emotional toll on us on a nightly basis." Blanchard stops for a moment and then adds, 'I don't feel like I have to save New Orleans. I'm not taking this all on my shoulders. Everybody as a community has to do his part, and I feel like I am doing mine by teaching and performing."
- Jenny Bagert
- Terence Blanchard wrote A Tale of God's Will after creating the soundtrack for Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke.