Choices is composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard's debut recording on the Concord label. And in a career with filled with many shifts and changes, it may be the most radical of all. It features his longtime cohorts, pianist Fabian Almazan, Derrick Hodge on bass, drummer Kendrick Scott, and Lionel Loueke on guitar. Saxophonist Walter Smith III joins the band here as well. In addition there are spoken word readings by intellectual, author, philosopher, and activist Dr. Cornel West, and vocals by neo-soul singer Bilal. The album was recorded in Blanchard's hometown of New Orleans at the Ogden Museum of Art. It's a meld of speculative post-bop, experimental yet accessible song forms, and jazz-initiated atmospheres. That leaves much to the imagination. Check out the opening cut, "Byus," written by Smith. A bassline and some percussive guitar effects by Loueke introduce West speaking about how "smartness" and "braininess" are qualitatively and radically different than wisdom and maturity "when wrestling with what it means to be human, when it comes to making the right, mature choices in life." It's a heady statement for reflection already, but when Blanchard and the band enter right there and weave a harmonically exceptional melody and a series of post-bop statements, it all goes wider and deeper. West re-enters for a moment to elucidate and then it's time for Smith's fine solo as the tune becomes a meditation on post-bop angularities and shifting textures and modes. West appears on six of the album's 15 cuts, either interwoven with the band playing tunes, or a cappella. It's provocative to be sure; and while a bit dense initially because of the complex sonic meld, it's also quite compelling, instructive and uplifting.
Bilal will be new to most jazz fans, and though known as a contemporary urban music star, he has the right phrasing, proper discipline, and solid vocal chops to sing jazz. What he does here is move effortlessly through the band's compositions using his own very individual style-weaving of soul feeling, jazz phrasing, and improvisation together. Check his gorgeous vocal on Blanchard's "D's Choice," as he uses his own form of vocalese against the piano. His self-penned "When Will You Call," literally sounds like an inseparable weave of timeless standard and neo-soul tune. But it's on Scott's "Touched by an Angel" where he shines most. The horn section introduces the spare, elegant, lyric, Loueke paints the backdrop, and the rhythm section increases the tension until it all stops and begins again in a different harmonic structure with shifting chromatics. The band walks, whispers, and cries out until about four minutes in, where his silky, wordless, vocal caresses the tune out until West enters at the very end and says that "indifference is what makes the angels weep." No doubt about it, this is a radical set that might be best showcased in a live setting, but Blanchard's no stranger to new territory or to controversy, which is what has made him such a revered and celebrated figure in jazz no matter what he's composing or recording. Choices is a musically expansive, challenging recording that engages its title's subject matter critically and liberally without beating the listener over the head with it. It should appeal not only to jazzheads but open-minded music fans of all stripes. This set has plenty of class and sophistication, but it also speculatively reflects musical and intellectual history and mystery too.