Trumpeter Terence Blanchard brings his ‘Fire’ opera to SF

Terence Blanchard often comes across as the Superman of American music, leaping across stylistic conventions and busting through long-barred doors while soaring to the top of each creative field he enters. But every superhero needs a sidekick, and when the New Orleans trumpeter set out to reconfigure his groundbreaking opera for a jazz setting, he knew just the cat to call.

Featuring a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, Blanchard’s second opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” earned rapturous reviews last year when it became the first ever Met production composed by an African American artist. As part of his four-day SFJAZZ Center residency Aug. 4-7, Blanchard and his E-Collective quartet are working with violinist David Balakrishnan’s San Francisco-based Turtle Island Quartet to distill “Fire” as a chamber jazz work.

“The first thing I thought is, if anyone can do it, David can,” Blanchard said. “I always try to learn from other people, and the best way to do that is to hire them. He’s very thoughtful and creative, and the relationship with Turtle Island has morphed into something we didn’t expect.”

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Blanchard connected with Balakrishnan’s pioneering jazz string ensemble in early 2020 and the budding relationship quickly manifested on last year’s Blue Note album “Absence,” an homage to jazz legend Wayne Shorter (who took his own stab at composing an opera with “Iphigenia,” a collaboration with esperanza spalding that premiered last year).

The trumpeter presented an elaborate, partially staged version of his first opera, “Champion,” at the SFJAZZ Center in 2015 with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, but in bringing “Fire” to the Bay Area he was more interested in reimagining the work than in creating a stripped-down production.

Based on the best-selling memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow,“Fire” features soprano Karen Slack, part of the original Opera Theater of St. Louis production, and baritone Will Liverman, who’s slated to perform in Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at the Met next year.

Sculptor and visual artist Andrew Scott, who created the cover art for Blanchard’s 2015 album “Breathless,” designed video projections for the concert to fill in narrative details for “a gut-wrenchingly powerful story,” Balakrishnan said.

“The opera is acted, and we’re not going to do that. Andrew is creating these visuals that amplify the story while the music will accommodate a certain amount of looseness and riskiness,” he said. “It’s definitely new territory.”

Rather than focusing on bridging different musical worlds, Blanchard said he approached writing for the orchestra “like the E-Collective, but with more colors.”

“There’s an aesthetic you have to pay attention to, particularly the way they play rhythm, but outside of that it’s about colors and choices and the way you tell a story. So I told David, don’t try to change who we are and what we do.”

Talking with Blanchard by video call from Spain, where he was touring with piano patriarch Herbie Hancock, he was still buzzing from the Emmy Award nomination for his score for the documentary “They Call Me Magic,” about basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. He recently finished the music for the second season of the HBO series “Perry Mason” and has several other film projects in the works.

Amidst the various commissions and composing gigs, he’s found time to tour widely with the E-Collective and Turtle Island over the past year, allowing the ensembles to hone the collaboration. Opening the Miner Auditorium run Aug. 4-5 with two nights of material from “Absence,” they’ll have several days to rehearse “Fire” before presenting the music Aug. 6-7.

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Balakrishnan didn’t get to see the opera at the Met, but he caught a live-stream of Chicago Lyric Opera’s production. Blanchard initially sent him a piano reduction of the score, but Balakrishnan figured out a way to capture the video link and re-watched the entire broadcast several times.

“I needed to be able to sit with it and take it all the way in,” he said, noting that the challenge in boiling down a 180-minute work to less than an hour was “presenting this as a narrative rather than just some of the arias. And we do create the feel of the storyline within a jazz concert.”

Balakrishnan was quick to add that his version of “Fire” is very much a work in progress. Ultimately Blanchard will be the one signing off on it and may well make significant changes after the first rehearsal. “Ultimately it’s going to have its own life,” Balakrishnan said. “Terence has this gift for seeing the big picture and is able to encompass so much. I tend to get caught up in the small things.”

As a bandleader and jaw-dropping improviser, Blanchard has always been ready to share the spotlight. He created the E-Collective as a vehicle to work with drummer Oscar Seaton, an ace studio player who’s equally effective in jazz, R&B, pop and gospel settings.

The band’s repertoire includes tunes and arrangements by bassist David Ginyard, Jr. and Berkeley-raised guitarist Charles Altura. Holding down the pivotal piano/keyboard chair is Menlo Park native Taylor Eigsti, who just finished a spate of concerts at the Stanford Jazz Festival. Adding Turtle Island into the mix has turned the performance into a “love fest,” Blanchard said.

“When Turtle Island is playing their piece it’s so exciting it’s like hearing it for the first time,” Blanchard added. “I tell the audience ‘You’re going to see a string quartet that redefines what a string quartet is,’ and they still look amazed afterwards.”

Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe@aol.com.


TERENCE BLANCHARD

With the E-Collective and Turtle Island String Quartet

Presenting “Absence”: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4-5; SFJAZZ Center Miner Auditorium, San Francisco; 25-$95

Presenting “Fire Shut in My Bones”: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 6, 7 p.m. Aug. 7; Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ Center; $35-$95

Tickets and information:  www.sfjazz.org

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