Grooving jazz on a cinematic scale.
Terence Blanchard featuring the E-Collective
Grooving jazz on a cinematic scale.
Terence Blanchard’s new release, Breathless (Blue Note), takes this Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter into groove territory — but this is anything but your grandma’s fusion. Starting out with solid bebop credentials as member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the mid-’80s, Terence’s musical curiosity has taken him beyond jazz into work for which there are no categories, only emotional descriptions. With 50 film scores, including nearly all of Spike Lee’s movies, as well as his own numerous releases as a leader on Columbia and Blue Note to his credit, Terence’s musical palette is as broad as his imagination. The E-Collective is more than just a groove engine for Terence to enjoy; it’s a vehicle for him to continue his exploration of the entire range of human expression.
Terence Blanchard, trumpet and keyboards
Fabian Almazan, keyboards
Charles Altura, guitar
Gene Coye, drums
David Ginyard, Jr., bass
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Like Miles Davis, trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard tends to build his bands from the drums up. Even since his debut album as a co-leader with altoist Donald Harrison, the 1983 Concord session New York Second Line with drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Blanchard’s bands have featured state-of-the-art trap set masters. From Carl Allen, Billy Kilson, and Troy Davis to Kendrick Scott, Justin Brown, and most famously Eric Harland, drummers have played an essential role in defining the direction of Blanchard’s music. The E-Collective is no different.
Blanchard says the seeds for the project were planted about a decade ago when he was recording the score for Spike Lee’s 2006 caper Inside Man. The orchestral score included a good deal of groove-based music, and he recruited veteran drummer Oscar “Seatpocket” Seaton for the soundtrack. A first call Los Angeles studio player who has worked extensively with fellow Chicago native Ramsey Lewis for several decades, appeared on hundreds of pop, R&B and jazz albums, and toured with acts such as Lionel Richie, David Sanborn, George Benson, Yolanda Adams and Dianne Reeves, Seaton encouraged Blanchard to pursue a plugged-in project.
“We were playing a lot of groove based music,” Blanchard recalls, “and Oscar kept saying we should put a group together. We stayed in touch and finally decided we have to make time to do this. There’s such maturity in his pocket, there’s a reason he got his nickname. He doesn’t just play loud, he plays big. His time is rock solid, but it’s the stuff in between the beats that makes him so strong.”
Last year Blanchard released the E-Collective’s first album, Breathless (Blue Note), a politically charged collection of compositions inspired partly by the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s kept the album’s core personnel together since then, including the highly sought after guitarist Charles Altura, who he first heard playing with Ambrose Akinmusire. Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan has been an essential member of Blanchard’s quintet for the past five years or so, and made a smooth transition from the post-bop world of 2013’s Magnetic to the sleek rhythms of Breathless.
For the album and first two years of gigs Blanchard relied upon electric bassist Donald Ramsey, a childhood friend from New Orleans who specializes in groove-based music, but the band’s latest addition is David “DJ” Ginyard, a versatile bassist who has worked widely with guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torsos.
In many ways the band is very much a work in progress with a growing book that is very much connected to Blanchard’s brilliant body of compositions for acoustic settings. “It’s still unfolding for me,” Blanchard says. “I’m working on some new material that’s just as challenging. I don’t approach it thinking that I have to write for an electric band. Oscar says just write it, we’ll make it funky. Literally, the only thing that has changed is the rhythmic style.”
It’s hard to overstate Blanchard’s impact as a triple threat. As an educator, he’s had a hand in shaping many of the most exciting players to emerge in the past two decades. He spent a dozen years as the artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and since 2011 he’s served as artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. As a composer he’s just as eminent. In Hollywood he’s best known for his quarter century tenure as composer for Spike Lee’s joints (dating back to 1991’s Jungle Fever), though he’s also worked with George Lucas (on 2012’s Red Tails) and on Broadway, delivering a steamy score for the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
A five-time Grammy Award winner, Blanchard is always looking for opportunities to stretch. He jumped at the opportunity to tackle his first opera, “Champion,” a project co-commissioned by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis. Billed as “an opera in jazz in two acts and 10 scenes,” the work explores the life and times of gay boxer Emile Griffith, who died a month after the opera premiered in June, 2013 at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts in Missouri. The commission came as a complete surprise, but Blanchard notes that “opera was very present in our house when I was growing up. I used to joke that my father would come home and he’d put on his opera recordings and you’d heard doors slamming because we wanted some peace and quiet. He’d call me over and say sit down and lecture me about everything that I was listening to.”
While he had never set lyrics to music before, he collaborated closely with the great Brazilian songwriter Ivan Lins on the 1996 album The Heart Speaks (Columbia), an experience that proved invaluable for working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer’s libretto. SFJazz restaged the jazz opera with Opera Parallèle last February, and he’s busy at work on his second Opera Theatre of Saint Louis commission based on journalist Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones.
“What’s interesting about my career is that all the different fields inform each other,” Blanchard says. “Writing a film score helped me with putting together a live performance. The opera was a film experience in reverse. With film there’s something for me to react to that’s visual. With the opera I was working with libretto, which is the script, and all the visual elements came later.”
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