Breathless (adj.) To be restricted of air because of emotions or force.
The word breathless has the ability to bring to mind special moments: a stunning sunset or a brilliant note that leaves one awestruck. Blissful remembrances are, unfortunately, not what inspired Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard to title his latest, striking album Breathless. Instead, it comes from pure frustration and anger at the treatment, abuse and death of black people—and particularly black men—at the hands of the police throughout the United States.
“Part of this is because of the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ campaign,” Blanchard explains, referring to the killing of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer who put him in a chokehold for the crime of selling individual cigarettes on the street. As caught on video, “I can’t breathe,” were Garner’s last words. Blanchard elaborates, adding that his personal breathlessness stems from “the pure exhaustion of having to deal with this damn issue. It’s tiring.”
“I don’t want to create debate. We’ve been debating this for generations. We need legislation. We need people to go to jail. Debate doesn’t seem to be curing this. What’s insidious is that these guys really think they can get away with it.”
The intensity of Blanchard’s ire can be heard and felt on such tunes from the new album as “Cosmic War.” It’s as if he and his band, the E-Collective, are going to battle, with Blanchard’s trumpet leading the way. “My daughters said that it sounds like a super heroes theme,” Blanchard says with a laugh.
As a composer, Blanchard says that the music for the album came first and then the theme slowly started to evolve. For instance, he began to hear a march—a blues march—in his trumpet parts and in the bass line on his very funky tune “Soldiers.” “It’s about community activism. It’s about people in the streets trying to make a change.”
The disc kicks in super-strong with the tune “Compared to What,” made famous by pianist/vocalist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris’ live version that was recorded at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival. (The results were released on the duo’s album, Swiss Movement.) New Orleanian PJ Morton on vocals provides a perfect opening with his dynamic singing backed by the explosive instrumental arrangements, electronic gusto and lyrics that speak of inequities and social activism.
“I thought his voice would be perfect for that,” says Blanchard of Morton, the son of Rev. Paul S. Morton and keyboardist for Maroon 5. “I’ve known him for a while and always wanted to work with him.” Morton, a gifted interpreter of song, is also heard on another cover tune, Hank Williams’ romantic “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But Time” that offers a change of mood to the album. Blanchard’s trumpet steps in dramatically to emphasize the poignancy of the subject’s emotions, offers what might be described as compressed or laser-sharp high notes, and then embraces the bottom register of the horn. Blanchard does mention that his work here and on other parts of the album have been compared to trumpet legend Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as well as rockers like Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine.
Morton, a truly soulful vocalist, displays his harder-hitting side on the despairing “Shutting Down,” written by Blanchard’s son T. Oliver Blanchard Jr. “Life sure knows how to break you down, down,” the lyrics say, while Terence’s horn seems to tonally empathize with and then try to soothe the emotions.
Blanchard and E-Collective, which includes another New Orleanian, bassist Donald Edwards, longtime keyboardist Fabian Almazan, guitarist Charles Altura and drummer Oscar Seaton, also brought a sense of intensity to the band’s appearance at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The band took the stage in the Jazz Tent and just got going and never stopped. There was no greeting, no introduction of the members—just rollin’. Blanchard says that he and E-Collective began approaching the set that way when they performed in Europe. They decided to let the music speak for itself.
“I don’t feel like talking,” Blanchard said. “I don’t feel like being that guy who comes out and says, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I just want to present this music and move on. Maybe someday I’ll get back to that, but right now, I’m so pissed.”
Blanchard was in a markedly different state of mind when he performed at the Jazz Fest’s NOCCA Pavilion in celebration of the institution’s 40th anniversary. His daughter, pianist Sydney, was among the students in the jazz ensemble, with a smiling Blanchard leading the beboppin’ all the way. At the end, Blanchard graciously shook hands with the beaming young members, though when he got to Sydney, the two just grinned and high-fived.
“That was cute,” Blanchard remembers with a touch of a rightfully proud father in his voice. As a NOCCA graduate with two children enrolled, the now-renowned musician and award-winning film composer is naturally very supportive of the creative arts school.
“NOCCA changed my life,” Blanchard declares. “I’ve always maintained that. NOCCA served me something different. It opened up my eyes to the rest of the world. I see my daughter having a very similar experience but even more in-depth. The thing I love about NOCCA the most is that it’s not so much that they’re producing artists but that they’re producing critical-thinking young people. These kids do their art and they’ve learned to ask the tough questions.”
Blanchard also enjoyed himself while celebrating International Jazz Day on April 30, 2015, when he performed with percussionist/singer Poncho Sanchez at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Then the two Grammy-winning artists, who recorded together on 2011’s inspired Chano Y Dizzy!—a tribute to Cuba’s innovative percussionist/singer Chano Pozo and jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie—took off to lead a second line to the Fest at the Fair Grounds.
“It was fun,” says Blanchard. “At first they put me in a carriage behind the brass band, but I couldn’t hear the band. So I jumped off my carriage and ran up front and started marching with the band. It was the Kinfolk Brass Band.”
Perhaps surprisingly (but then again, maybe not), Blanchard never did play in a brass band. He remembers that trumpeter/bandleader Doc Paulin called him once, but he wasn’t interested in hitting the streets.
“My weekends were usually spent taking piano and trumpet lessons, and I was getting experience at St. Aug [St. Augustine High School]—in the brass section,” Blanchard recalls. “Leroy Jones started that. And I was also doing the cover band thing. Now that I think about it, I hated marching bands. You’d be marching, trying to play, high-stepping. I haven’t been mauled like that since,” he exclaims with a laugh.
Breathless, with its funk and groove vibe as heard on the trumpeter’s self-penned, “See Me As I Am,” and elsewhere, clearly reveals Blanchard’s New Orleans musical roots.
“The thing is, it probably seems that way because I grew up hearing and playing a lot of R&B music,” Blanchard explains. “I played keyboards in a group called the Creators, and the R&B side of New Orleans is still very strong in my personality. And hearing [bassist] Donald Ramsey right there, he put us [the E-Collective] right in the middle of all of that. It’s grounded in a groove- based philosophy.”
“See Me As I Am” is, in a way, an appeal for others—especially the police and those in power—to not make assumptions about others based on racial presumptions and prejudices. Directly, it refers to the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina, an unarmed black man who was shot numerous times in the back by a police officer. Both the shooter, Michael Slager, and Scott served in the U.S. Coast Guard.
“What do people have to do to be viewed as human beings?” a frustrated Blanchard asks. “I don’t know what the answer to that is. But I know the answer to stopping it. Put people in jail. If they go to jail, this will stop. This isn’t necessarily a black and white issue. It’s a mentality. African- American and Latino people have been screaming about this for a long time while a big portion of America thought it was made-up or over-boasting.”
As a black man, Blanchard has naturally experienced racial profiling, like being pulled over by police for no apparent reason. “It’s been happening all my life,” he says. Even more frightening for him was when his son was once misidentified as a robbery suspect and seven police cars arrived at Dillard to take him into custody. Luckily, says Blanchard, one of the officers knew his son and vouched for his character. Blanchard, who is grateful for the officer’s help to this day, also says that though his son is strong-willed, he is soft-spoken, an attribute that may have saved his life. “Do you know how wrong that could have gone?”
“There’s starting to be this attitude about the police that I think is very, very dangerous. We have to do something before this gets out of hand. Whenever you [the police] call the people you’re supposed to protect as ‘them’ you’re starting in the wrong place.”
“The tune ‘Compared to What’ set the tone for the album. The truth is in front of your face now. How do you not show compassion for someone who lost their life, no matter what your political views are? Whose truth are you talking about?”
“This isn’t about me. It’s about something bigger,” Blanchard states. “It’s a high level of frustration.”