TERENCE BLANCHARD: A MUSICAL HEALING FORCE
April 20 2018
From his expansive work composing the scores for Spike Lee films ranging from the documentary 4 Little Girls to the epic Malcolm X, as well as his own discography of recordings such as A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), 2018 USA Fellow and five-time Grammy-winning trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard has been a consistent artistic force for making powerful musical statements concerning painful American tragedies – past and present. With his current quintet E-Collective he addresses the staggering cyclical epidemic of gun violence in this country with his new album Live, 7 powerful songs recorded live in concert that both reflect the bitter frustration of the conscious masses while also providing a balm of emotional healing. With a title that carries a pointed double meaning, the album is an impassioned continuation of the band’s GRAMMY-nominated 2015 studio recording, Breathless.
The music of Live was symbolically culled from concerts performed at venues in three communities that have experienced escalating conflicts between law enforcement and African American citizens: The Dakota in Minneapolis (near where Philando Castile was pulled over and shot by a cop on July 6, 2016); The Bop Stop in Cleveland (near where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police on November 22, 2014); and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas (near where police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patricio Zamarripa were assassinated while on duty covering a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on July 7-8, 2016). The E-Collective’s Live project condemns gun violence of all manner whether against profiled citizens of color or targeted members of law enforcement.
Discussing the origin of E-Collective, Blanchard states, “I didn’t put this group together to be a protest band. We started out wanting to play music to inspire young people that didn’t want to play jazz to play instrumental music on its highest level. In this computer age, we saw too many kids playing music but not trying to learn theory or master their craft. However, while we were on tour in Europe, Mike Brown got shot. Trayvon Martin had already been murdered. And back then it seemed like these shootings were happening every month. That’s when I felt we had to stand up and make a statement with our 2015 album, Breathless [named in honor of Eric Garner who pleaded in vain to a pile of police officers with their knees in his back that he could not breathe]. After touring that music for two years, we couldn’t just let it go. What would we look like as artists doing a record like Breathless then come out with some other shit totally devoid of consciousness?”
Experimental, electric and exotic, E-Collective consists of Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Charles Altura on guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano and synthesizers, Oscar Seaton on drums, and new addition David “DJ” Ginyard on bass.
“This band is an example of the revolution that is taking place,” Blanchard explains. “The pianist Fabian – born in Cuba, raised in Florida - has his own record label, Biophilia, that’s devoted to making the planet green. Most people are trying to make money but that’s not where his focus lies. The bassist David, from Greensboro, South Carolina, is a very talented church boy. He doesn’t preach or wear it on his sleeve yet he walks tall in his confidence everyday. The guitarist Charles looks like a hard rocker but he’s a brilliant Stanford alumnus who studies anthropology - sits at the piano and plays Chopin after a show. And the drummer Oscar, who grew up playing gospel in church in Chicago, has been with Lionel Richie for 16 years. When you look at the conglomeration of us all from different walks of life, look at how we come together and create something harmonious. We are what the promise of America is supposed to be.”
Indeed, throughout the album, Blanchard’s horn does not play the traditional role of a lone voice above the fray. Instead, he plays his horn through an effect that gives it the sound of a group of people standing up for their rights in ‘Marleyan’ harmony. “The vibe I wanted is a sound like a gathering of people chanting en masse for the communal demand of justice.”
Live opens with a cover of “Hannibal,” a Marcus Miller composition honoring the heroic Tunisian military general of a series of battles in the early 200s BC, that was introduced on jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis’ culture conscious classic 1989 album, Amandla (its title the Zulu word meaning “power” and a rallying cry during the resistance in South Africa against apartheid). With its crying guitar, tender piano and majestic chordal progression, it makes a mighty start to the album. “We need a Hannibal right now,” Blanchard muses, “a powerful figure to come in and effect change. The spoken words are from a speech given by Cornel West in which he asked, ‘What kind of human being do you want to be?’ It’s about finding your voice to speak out against the wrongs you see.”
“Kaos,” a Blanchard composition, opens with a strong boxing horn line, percussive piano solo, forlorn guitar and ominous rising synths that drop down into a tributary of bass, setting up Terence on twinned horn for a slaying solo that brings the song to an explosive close. “Chaos is what we’re experiencing now and also where we’re headed,” Blanchard states. “Take any topic: when you have the public shouting at the top of their lungs to do something and you have a minority of people in power insisting that the real problem lies elsewhere, it makes for ludicrous dialogues and decisions.”
“Unchanged,” composed by Altura, opens with introspective solo electric guitar, a haunting melody and a powerful freight train of a drum solo from Seaton over the chord changes that reflects the frustration and helplessness of going in circles on issues with no resolve…from peaceful protest to the rage of Black Lives Matter…of hollow victories and unending madness. Through all the intensity, it remains an exceedingly beautiful piece of music.
“Soldiers,” which opens with a soundbite pastiche of Martin Luther King over Malcolm X speeches, erupts into raging trumpet over a funk march and electric blues guitar. “I wrote this song for those who help others like my mom who loved working with kids and has a big heart,” Blanchard states. “With so many people negatively affecting the lives of citizens all because of money, I wanted to write something for good folks always endeavoring to do things that help others.”
“Dear Jimi,” an homage to anomaly Black rock guitar hero Jimi Hendrix, juxtaposes pitch bending blues with a lilting melody line. “I never got a chance to write a song about a hero that wasn’t a jazz musician,” Terence says, “I included this composition on the record because Jimi was a cat that was always talking about love. It felt appropriate.”
“Can Anybody Hear Me” is a slow marching anthem that explodes into creeping ascending, crisscrossing lines - a reflection of the outrage of the masses ignored and unheard. Blanchard elucidates, “Oddly enough, I wrote that for the kids in Florida before I knew about the kids in Florida or any other kid that’s been through that and come out the other end screaming…and nobody’s doing anything.”
The closing encore of Live is a concert version of New Orleans-native Blanchard’s song “Choices” – a musing on the human challenge of decency. “I wrote ‘Choices’ in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but it’s still relevant to what’s happening today. Look at the scare tactics that people buy into which got us our current administration. We move from one controversy to another, never acknowledging that the previous one didn’t even come to fruition. The sad part is the people that believed in our president have a legitimate beef. The problem is that those in power that they believe in are manipulating them and their feelings. At the end of all this, hopefully, we’ll be able to thank this administration…not for the manner in which they governed this country but how many sleeping people they woke up.”
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Terence Oliver Blanchard began playing piano at age 5, and later trumpet beginning in summer camps alongside his childhood friend Wynton Marsalis. While studying jazz at Rutgers University, Blanchard was invited to play with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1982 before Marsalis recommended him as his replacement in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Following a string of collaborative recordings, he released his first self-titled solo album on Columbia Records in 1991, leading to a string of acclaimed often conceptual works and over forty movie scores, primarily feature films and documentaries for director Spike Lee, including HBO’s 4-hour When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
Regarding his consistent attachment to artistic works of conscience, Blanchard confesses, “You get to a certain age when you ask, ‘Who’s going to stand up and speak out for us?’ Then you look around and realize that the James Baldwins, Muhammad Alis and Dr. Kings are no longer here...and begin to understand that it falls on you. I’m not trying to say I’m here to try to correct the whole thing, I’m just trying to speak the truth.” In that regard, he cites unimpeachable inspirations. “Max Roach with his ‘Freedom Now Suite,’ John Coltrane playing ‘Alabama,’ even Louis Armstrong talking about what was going on with his people any time he was interviewed. Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter who live by their Buddhist philosophy and try to expand the conscience of their communities. I’m standing on all of their shoulders. How dare I come through this life having had the blessing of meeting those men and not take away any of that? Like anybody else, I’d like to play feel good party music but this album is about the reality of where we are.”
“The main reasons E-Collective and I recorded this new music are two-fold,” Blanchard concludes. “1: I wanted the music to be a healing force in the areas in which we performed – to let the music take your anger and frustrations. I’m not telling people not to be angry but when things become too much, the music is there to help you heal. 2: With this administration that commands all of the airwaves everyday diverting people’s attention away from matters that are very important, my hope is that this project helps to focus the conversation and, in the heat of these events that keep happening, to keep that conversation going.”