Dallas — One of the truest and most steadfast tenets of art, and the creation of art, is that it is often a reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist for the time and place in which it is birthed. And, indeed, the core function of any creative endeavor is to express something. When that thing aims to better society and push for progression, it makes for a crucial and effective tool.
As the SOLUNA Festival continues, this idea of art as a tool for societal growth seems to be presenting itself more and more definitively at the center of this year’s theme. And in this regard, Terence Blanchard’s role in the lineup has elevated the festival’s artistic utility to levels of undeniable efficacy.
It started on Sunday, when the trumpeter and composer joined audience members at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Cedars for a discussion following a screening of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Blanchard’s list of accolades is long and varied, including multiple Grammy Awards and several Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, many of which stem from his long career collaborating as film scorer on more than a dozen Spike Lee joints.
In this latest one, which afforded Lee with the first Oscar win of his career, Blanchard’s score is rich and lush, featuring a melodic hook that harkens back to the heroic, Afrocentric sounds of the Blaxploitation subgenre. Characterized by a bluesy, wailing guitar motif, the movie’s main musical theme carries with it all the emotional weight and cultural dynamism of the African-American experience, with a romantic hint of adventure.
As he tells it, “Spike likes strong melodic content that runs through every scene,” which Blanchard’s composition delivers, fittingly nuanced against Lee’s quintessentially unsubtle narrative.
It is a story inspired by the true events of Ron Stallworth, who, in the early 1970s, managed to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan as the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. It is a melodrama that rolls in and out of moments of dense, racially charged tension and light, sardonic humor, but ultimately culminates to a heavy, hard-hitting message. His unapologetic, sometimes hilarious, references to Donald Trump and his contentious rise to power—let alone the sobering use of footage from the riots in Charlottesville, Va., at the end of the film—brings immediacy to the plot, calling for an end to bigotry, intolerance, and indifference. It was a message that blended so effectively into Blanchard’s second SOLUNA appearance this week.
In a huge, multidisciplinary collaboration, Blanchard and his band, The E-Collective, partnered with the Rennie Harris Puremovement American Street Dance Theater Company and locally-based visual artists Andrew F. Scott & The Atec Lightsquad to provide a thoroughly provocative exploration into the socio-political climate of America. This immersive work, titled Caravan: A Revolution on the Road, saw its world-premiere at The Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas Tuesday evening.
What started in 2015 as a jazz instrumental album called Breathless, addressing racism and the effects of police brutality on marginalized communities in America, has now evolved into this fully formed project that sheds light on violence (political or otherwise), racial tensions, and the overall effects of deep-rooted polarization permeating American society. It poses a critical review of the many struggles—ethnic, gender, class, etc.
Blanchard’s compositions are plush and largely through-composed as the company moves through the interpretive vignettes. The rich instrumentation of drums, bass, guitar, piano, synthesizers, and Blanchard’s tuneful trumpeting yielded an effective mix of jazz, hip-hop, and psychedelic funk that blanketed the entire performance, with a polyrhythmic drive that was energetic and appropriately dark. It moved with a creeping urgency—perhaps, the type of urgency harkening our culture to reflect and change before it’s too late.
While the use of narrative is thin, it is still strangely poignant, as the dancers fluidly execute the striking choreography. Clad in urban streetwear, the diverse group engaged in artful combinations of breakdance, ballet, pop-and-lock, acrobatics, and contemporary dance. Harris’ use of African-American dance styles and movement blends effortlessly with the complexity of Blanchard’s score. There was one who seemed to hold the “lead” role, if there was one. The double-jointed hoofer entered the stage at the top of the show with his arms wrenchingly coiled behind his back, immediately evoking images of a young black man handcuffed by the side of the road. His painful flailing throughout the piece was a constant visual thread leading back to this theme, ending with a harrowing solo finale that ended the show.
Andrew Scott’s complementary visual work—faint images of various protests, riots, and struggles spanning the modern era—was projected against a stony slab imbued with a powerful peace sign. The images, perhaps the most direct and concrete component of the performance, offered useful context, and Scott’s stimulating use of projection mapping gave way to psychedelic imagery that mirrored the surrealism of the accompanying music and dance. His artistic background, rooted in African and African-American culture, furthered the congruency of the collaboration.
The coordination of these artistic media was extremely effective. The end product was a true masterwork, cerebrally and emotionally engaging with an intensity that seldom let up. It is a tricky experience to navigate, not only for the presenters of such a work, but also the consumers. It is easy to be swept away by the marvelous musicianship and expert artistry and let the overall message fall underneath. However, what Blanchard and company accomplished with Caravan was an experience that forced reflection while leaving enough interpretive space for each individual present to find their starting point on their own.
This year’s festival was empowered with a particular potency through the participation of Terence Blanchard, et al. The themes that run through these works speak to the needs of our society as a whole, and therefore the intellectual conclusions one might reach are both unique and ubiquitous. However, we chose to move forward will be a collection of individual decisions, incited by moments like these that are effectively warm and intense.