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Terence Blanchard: Free Will And 'Choices'

Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard is a throwback to the socially engaged jazzman of the 1960s: He's as wrapped up in politics and society as he is in scales and improvisation. Blanchard's last album (A Tale of God's Will) dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on his hometown of New Orleans, while his new record, Choices, ponders even broader questions about free will and personal responsibility.

The first-trumpet chair in the jazz world is one of the most daunting pieces of furniture to occupy, with names like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis having claimed it before. Terence Blanchard may have been overshadowed by Wynton Marsalis over the past few decades, but his ambition and artistry deserve consideration from even the fussiest of jazz fans. Choices provides further proof that he belongs among that elite fraternity.

Like Davis and Armstrong before him, Blanchard is a threat as both a trumpeter and a composer, and has also scored some 50 films, including When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary for HBO. The trumpeter still calls New Orleans home, and Choices continues his preoccupation with the way places inspire his musical and philosophical musings.

To express his ideas more eloquently, Blanchard enlisted Cornel West of Princeton to add pithy verbal snippets to the album. The title track affords West the opportunity to proffer some of his poetic musings on art and life.

West's impassioned words sometimes get lost in the mix, but his churchy cadences do fit the music hand in glove. Blanchard responds to the call with a round, burnished tone that recalls the intimacy and gravitas of Miles Davis while maintaining a voice all his own.

As West says in his piece "Jazz Man in the World of Ideas," "all imitation is suicide; all emulation is the sign of an adolescent mind."

Languid ballads abound on the album, but there are upbeat, highly danceable interludes, as well. West African guitar phenomenon Lionel Loueke sits in on a few tracks, and adds a funky, polyrhythmic feel to "A New World," proving that Blanchard can stretch into cousinly genres without sounding like he's speaking down to his audience. After all, jazz is a feel, not a jail.

But above and beyond the ornate sentiments of Cornel West, Terence Blanchard proves that sound itself is capable of expressing the ineffable. His enviable gifts as a melodist are evident throughout, and finely straddle the line between the decorous and the deeply felt. Yes, they are beautiful and easy on the ear, but never do they descend into easy sentiment — or, heaven forbid, smoothness. His composition "Touched By an Angel" is as much about silence as it is about sound, and shows the trumpeter proudly taking up where Miles Davis left off some 40 years ago.

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David Was