Magnetic is Terence Blanchard’s return to the Blue Note label after an absence of six years. Its release coincides with the June 2013 premiere in St. Louis of Blanchard’s first opera, Champion. Magnetic is a small-group recording of uncommon richness, complexity and scope. It sounds like the work of a jazz musician who writes operas.
Blanchard also writes film scores, and is accustomed to having orchestras and voices at his disposal. He has said that he wants to bring such a “diverse and expansive color palette” to his quintet. Magnetic is successful in achieving this ambitious goal. Blanchard has access to special resources: his own bold yet selective use of electronics; high-impact guests (Ravi Coltrane, Ron Carter, Lionel Loueke); and the individual and collective creativity of one of the strongest working bands in jazz (tenor saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Kendrick Scott, new 21-year-old bassist Joshua Crumbly).
The 10 tracks, all originals by band members, unfold as varied, often-startling narratives. There are continuous episodic transitions, viewpoints shifting within the ensemble, foregrounds becoming backgrounds, unisons becoming counterpoint and counterpoint becoming, organically, solos. Blanchard’s trumpet eruptions on pieces like Almazan’s “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song” and Winston’s “Time to Spare” are ferocious yet technically exact, and that is before he turns himself into a trumpet orchestra with electronics. (Blanchard’s swirling “Hallucinations” is an exemplary aesthetic application of digital technology.) Coltrane’s soprano saxophone swoops into Blanchard’s “Don’t Run” like ecstasy unleashed. Winston’s concise statements are so integral to each tune that they feel less like solos than meticulous personal clarifications. Almazan knocks you down with brute force, touches your heart with lyricism and dizzies your brain with intricacy, all in the first minute of his five-minute piano epic, “Comet.”
Halfway through 2013, here is a clear candidate for Record of the Year.