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Breathless (2015)

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Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard's 2013 return to Blue Note, Magnetic, built upon his decades-long history of post-bop dynamism with a forward-thinking approach that blended edgy, modal improvisation with a sophisticated, genre-crossing compositional style. It was a concept he had been investigating on his previous efforts Bounce (2003), Flow (2005), and Choices (2009), and, though it had been years sinceBlanchard was considered a young lion, the eclecticism of the album matched the work of many of his younger contemporaries like trumpeter Christian Scott and pianist Robert Glasper, the latter of whom even played on Bounce. In keeping with this boundary-pushing trajectory, Blanchard's follow-up, 2015's Breathless, finds the New Orleans native jumping wholeheartedly into a funky stew of R&B, hip-hop, and fusion-influenced jazz. Blanchard is joined here by his band the E-Collective, an adroit group of young players centered around gifted keyboardist Fabian Almazan, the only carry-over from the Magnetic sessions. Along with Almazanthe E-Collective features Charles Altura (guitar), Donald Ramsey (bass), and Oscar Seaton (drums). Also showcased throughout is vocalist PJ Morton, who has released his own R&B- and contemporary gospel-infused albums and toured as a keyboardist with the pop group Maroon 5. Ambitious, adventurous, and steeped in the kind of sticky, psychedelic jazz-funk pioneered by trumpeter Miles Davis in the '70s, Breathless is Blanchard's most electrified album to date. While Blanchard has long drawn comparisons to Davis, they've mostly referenced the iconic trumpeter's classic quintet sides from the late '60s and not his effects-drenched fusion period. Similarly, while on previous efforts Blanchard has flirted with an electronic sound, he's never gone this far in a contemporary jazz direction. Here we get a very '90s hip-hop/jazz-infused reworking of Les McCann's classic 1969 socio-political anthem "Compared to What," several languid, new agey spoken word pieces with Morton, and some expansive, groove-oriented cuts like the bluesy midtempo "See Me as I Am" that allow for plenty of spaced-out solos. Also intriguing are Morton's several slow jam vocal numbers, including an inspired cover of Hank Williams' "I Ain't Got Nothin' But Time,' which replaces the country legend's cowboy twang and fiddles with sweeping, Stevie Wonder-esque orchestral synth backgrounds. Also compelling is the languid, dreamy ballad "Everglades," which impossibly balancesDebussy-influenced impressionism with angular, synthy, '80s electro-funk. Ultimately, whileBreathless is a break from the aggressive, acoustic swing that has marked much of Blanchard's career, it nonetheless retains all the jaw-dropping artistry and soulful creativity we have come to expect, albeit delivered in a vibrant, electric style.