Terence Blanchard can’t be blamed for wanting to follow up 2007’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) with another morality tale. That poignant Grammy-winner, which surveyed the emotional response to the New Orleans tragedy with quintet and orchestra, was perhaps the apex of the trumpeter/composer’s career. Choices also has much to say, about, obviously enough, the choices we all make. It’s impressive overall, due largely to the exemplary musicianship of Blanchard and his crew, but lacks the urgency and potency of its predecessor.
For the recording, Blanchard set up his equipment in New Orleans’ Ogden Museum of Southern Art and utilized the services of pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer/percussionist Kendrick Scott, Walter Smith III on saxophone and the recently ubiquitous Lionel Loueke on guitar. In addition, Blanchard employed the neo-soul singer Bilal and professor/activist Dr. Cornel West, who provides spoken word interludes throughout much of the recording.
West’s words are always carefully chosen and never less than thought provoking; His freeform philosophizing adds depth to the compositions on which he appears. Unfortunately, Blanchard allows West to speak unaccompanied a few times as well, tracks that will surely have many listeners who only want to hear the music reaching for the skip button after the first airing (fortunately they’re all under a minute).
Extraneous verbiage aside, when Blanchard and cronies settle into a groove, they make all the right choices. “Hugs (Historically Underrepresented Groups),” authored by Almazan, sees the pianist and trumpeter vacillating between sweet/smooth and utterly ferocious, the piece shifting to another level of intensity altogether when the entire crew opens up. Smith’s “Him or Me,” a showcase for the saxophonist, gives the rhythm section its most testing workout and Loueke his most transcendent solo. And Hodge’s “Winding Roads,” Choices’ longest track, is also its most panoramic, subtly slipping from one disparate texture and ambiance to another.