Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard | Credit: Cedric Angeles

Let’s go back to March 2020. Terence Blanchard, his E-Collective jazz group, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were preparing for their gig at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the 14th of that month.

But three nights before the concert was to take place, the NBA started to cancel its games and empty its arenas on TV before our very eyes. The next day, every performing arts organization in L.A. and elsewhere canceled their concerts one after another, like dominoes falling. Blanchard says that he and his crew were told to get off the plane and stay put. The COVID pandemic shutdown was on.

By the time Blanchard and company reassembled to make up the lost Disney Hall gig on Saturday night, March 18 — three years after the scuttled one — things had changed remarkably for him, and for the better. Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, had been performed and mostly acclaimed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2021, the first time a Black composer had ever had a work staged there. As a result of this success, his first opera, Champion, which received mixed reviews in earlier productions, is coming up at the Met, starting April 10.

A scene from James Robinson’s production of Terence Blanchard’s Champion | Credit: Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The shock waves generated by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder have surely contributed to Blanchard’s sudden visibility on American opera’s most prestigious stage. Nevertheless, the Disney Hall gig stuck to its original agenda, a survey of Blanchard’s music for the films of his longtime collaborator, director Spike Lee.

For a brief moment, it looked as if an unforeseen obstacle was going to mess with the music again. Just after the opening number — an excerpt from the score to Mo’ Better Blues, a gospel-like thing launched by a literal quote from Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” — a fire alarm went off in the hall, its strobe lights flashing, as Blanchard was introducing his band. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, and Blanchard handled the situation with a combination of unflappable stage savvy, humor, and concern.

So, on went the music — and here, I have mixed feelings. There is little doubt that Blanchard over the years has carried out his mission effectively and well, providing the atmospheres and setting the moods for Lee’s films, with an active social conscience guiding his way.  For some — or likely, most — in the audience, the music immediately conjured up memories of the films themselves, enhanced by brief video clips and still images shown on a big screen, with live videos of the performers creatively superimposed in real time by Andrew Scott. But when played on its own as pure concert music, disconnected from the films it serves, a lot of the music here seemed generic and monotonous, a one-size-fits-all assemblage of slow tempos and somber minor-key moods.

Yet whenever Blanchard’s sterling trumpet entered the fray, the scores came alive with the stimulus and emotion of jazz. The haunting, piercing cry of his horn in the suite from Malcolm X, the way he made the passage from When the Levees Broke sing and soar soulfully, the way he pulled the music from Checkers out of the doldrums by rising to a cry of anguish — these flourishes provided juice, life, and soulful meaning that transcended the films. There was one selection, though, that didn’t use nor require Blanchard’s horn in order to stand on its own: the suite from BlacKkKlansman, the most viable, varied score of the lot, marked by some sustained rock guitar from Charles Altura.

The LA Phil, which played sumptuously throughout, was in the capable, versatile hands of conductor Thomas Wilkins. The featured singers were different than those set for 2020. Lalah Hathaway’s voice, loaded with phrasings quite reminiscent of that of her father Donny, caressed “Someday We’ll All Be Free” from Malcolm XTarriona Tank” Ball convincingly sang a pair of Stevie Wonder songs from Jungle Fever, “These Three Words” and “Make Sure You’re Sure” — not top-drawer Stevie, to be sure, but worth hearing.

Blanchard’s E-Collective, with its stalwart front line of soloists (alto saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Taylor Eigsti, electric guitarist Altura) powered by electric bassist David Ginyard Jr. and drummer Oscar Seaton, should have had more playing time, providing only glimpses of these musicians’ capabilities (check out their highly absorbing recent album in tandem with the Turtle Island Quartet, Absence [Blue Note]). And after Hathaway and the band offered Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as a closing benediction, the E-Collective couldn’t resist staying onstage as the crowd filed out of the hall, jamming on the tune, with Tank doing a rap based, I think, on Walmart announcements.