It's the documentaries that he especially immerses himself in. The narrative is key, and he doesn't want his music to get in the way of a single word.
"When I'm working on a documentary, I try to watch it at least four or five times before I start. Then I break it down into components," Blanchard said in a recent phone interview. "The film will tell you what it needs."
Writing the score for Lee's 2006 documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" proved to be an even more intense project than usual. Blanchard, a New Orleans native, wrote much of the score for the Hurricane Katrina film while in his city. He was back in town after evacuating during the 2005 storm, and the devastation was all around him.
"That was the hardest thing about it," Blanchard said. "Other projects, whether they be fiction or reality, I could always take a break from those things. This was the first one when I couldn't do that. It was a bit of a strain. But also very therapeutic."
After a thoughtful pause, he continued, "I felt a sense of obligation, you know, to make sure that the music that I had written for that could give people a sense of the pain and suffering and the resilience of the people who had gone through the tragedy."
Shown on HBO, the four-hour film won a host of awards, including an Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking.
Blanchard and his band then expanded the film score into "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)," an orchestra work that they will perform on March 6 at Stanford University with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. The recording of "A Tale of God's Will" won the Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for 2007.
Blanchard couldn't have foreseen this success when he was writing the score. As he composed, he was struggling to control his anger. Besides all the other damage and aftermath of Katrina, the hurricane had wrecked his mother's house. He appears in a scene in "When the Levees Broke" with his weeping mother, Wilhelmina, revisiting the home for the first time.
While writing, he said: "One of the things I was worried about was sounding like I was angry in my playing. But I had to let that go. I started to realize it wasn't just anger. It was pain. It was a lot of different things."
A kaleidoscope of emotions comes through in the work's 13 movements, from "Funeral Dirge," underscored by powerful, grieving drums, to the gentle "Ashe" (which means "and so it shall be" in the African language Yoruba).
After Katrina, Blanchard said: "There was a lot of optimism about moving forward, but also astonishment about the reality of what had happened. There was a long process of coming to terms with the truth. You could walk around, you could smell it, you could see it, but in a weird way you were still asking yourself, 'Did this really happen?' I was still in the midst of that while writing the music.
"At the same time, there was a certain amount of guilt on some of our parts. There were a lot of people who suffered much more than we did."
Blanchard's house had only broken windows and water damage, and his mother was able to rebuild her home. He wrote the last movement in his work, "Dear Mom," for her. It's a softly nostalgic piece, with Blanchard's trumpet tracing a continuous narrative thread above lyrical strings, seeming to pass through childhood into the pain of today. Like many of the movements, it's marked by a sense of restrained grief.
How did his mother react to the piece? "Just like most moms would: 'Oh, that's nice,'" Blanchard said, laughing.
Other tracks include "Ghost of Congo Square," which mixes African beats with the repeated chant "This is the tale of God's will." Buoyed by the energy of the beats, the chant lends a sense of acceptance, but also the hope of moving forward after a disaster.
Wordless human voices add a haunting note to "In Time of Need," which was written by saxophonist Brice Winston from Blanchard's quintet. Periodically in the recording studio, other band musicians contributed to the creation process.
"We never had any discussion about who was going to write what," Blanchard said. "We were amazed at how everything fit together. ... That's another reason why the album is called what it is. This was from a higher power, bigger than us as individuals."
At Stanford, images from Lee's film will be shown as "A Tale of God's Will" is performed. Stanford Symphony Orchestra conductor Jindong Cai likened the music to a concerto, in which the orchestra supports the soloists, playing steadily below while Blanchard and the other soloists improvise "shining passages" on top.
Calling the work "enchanting," Cai noted that he feels a personal connection as well. Originally from China, he taught at Louisiana State University before coming to Stanford. Katrina hit the year after he left.
"A Tale of God's Will" has visited other colleges as well. At Skidmore College in New York, a freshman class recently spent a year studying the orchestra work, Katrina and the hurricane's aftermath. Blanchard served as artist in residence, addressing the class and performing.
Blanchard, 47, is also artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in New Orleans.
Nowadays, he's looking ahead to Lee's volume two of "When the Levees Broke," which he'll also score. Blanchard says it'll be interesting to see what New Orleans-related topics Lee covers, especially due to past racial issues and the fact that the city recently elected the first white mayor in 30 years, Mitch Landrieu.
"I never looked at him as a white candidate," Blanchard said. "One of my friends said, 'When you're in a foxhole, you don't care what the race of the person is.' We're just trying to survive. Our schools are better, we're better, but we have a long way to go."
What: The Terence Blanchard Quintet performs "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)" with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 6
Cost: Tickets are $24-$56 for adults and $10 for Stanford students, with other discounts available for groups, other students and young people.
Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.