Last year's #blacklivesmatter-inflected album was influenced first by the trumpeter's family.

terence blanchard photo
Terence Blanchard, by Henry Adebonojo

Today, Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective play the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent at 5:50 p.m. at Jazz Fest. When the group's album, Breathless, came out almost a year ago, Blanchard and I talked about the album's roots in the moment, but also events that affected his family specifically. Here's an encore presentation of that story.

“I’ve been watching the news all morning, and I’m waiting for the word thug to come up and it hasn’t.”

It’s only days after biker gangs in Texas engaged in a shoot-out with each other and the Waco police, and Terence Blanchard is waiting for one of the 24-hour news channels to brand the bikers in the same way that African-Americans protesters have been labeled. He’s waiting for pundits to question their commitment to their community, or to bemoan the epidemic of white-on-white crime, as are many African Americans. He is struck by the juxtaposition of images of the unarmed Black protesters that faced militaristic responses next to photos of the Waco police standing around casually in their daily uniform while bikers who shot at them type on their phones.

“That’s when you start to blow a gasket,” he says. “Nine people died in a shoot-out in a parking lot like something you see in a movie. In Ferguson and Baltimore, nobody was killed in those disturbances. Property was damaged, but nothing of the magnitude of nine people losing their lives. There’s truly a double standard, and it’s tiresome.”

Talk of Waco and disproportionate responses is a natural extension of Breathless, Blanchard’s new album with his new band, the E-Collective. The title track refers specifically to Eric Garner’s cry, “I can’t breathe,” as he was choked to death by police officers in New York City last year. 

“This land is my land / or so they say,” Blanchard’s son Oliver—who performs as JRei Oliver—says in his spoken word vocal over a guarded groove and a backing that verges on ambient as Blanchard’s trumpet searches for places to go. It briefly soars when JRei says, “I roam, I roam,” but it soon recedes and is again constrained. “Am I wrong to believe that one day black and blue will not equal pain,” the lyric continues, and a multitude of voices ooh in sympathy, saying they’re there more than anything else. The song ends with Blanchard’s horn still trying to find a way out while his son intones, “We can’t breathe.”

Another track, “See Me as I Am,” employs rattled chains as a percussion element—“the chains of bigotry,” Blanchard says. That’s a little on the nose, but his gravity and musicality makes them work. The tracks addresses the preconceived notions that no African American is immune to, Blanchard included. When he was with Columbia Records in the 1980s, a security guard at the label’s offices in New York stopped him when he came for a meeting and told him that deliveries were around back before Blanchard could open his mouth. Versions of that experience continue today, though often less crassly.

“It’s frustrating when you walk into a room and you can tell that some people have made decisions about you without ever talking to you. When you get a chance to talk to those people, you realize you’re working at a deficit at the beginning of the conversation. It’s fascinating to talk to people and you can see the moment when their mind changes about you.”

Hearing Blanchard tell these stories is sobering because in many ways he is what white America seems to want African Americans to be. He’s mature. He’s intellectually and artistically serious. He’s successful and accomplished. He’s professional. He’s reserved. He’s a family man. He has ambition, and he has a sense of humor. Breathless’ theme aside, he’s not particularly outspoken. When he perceives racism and bigotry, he’s not misconstruing a less inflammatory bias. It’s hard to imagine bigotry directed at him as a class thing, a hood thing, or anything other than a black thing.

Blanchard doesn’t consider Breathless to a political album, but he doesn’t see any of his albums, including 2007 A Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina), as political.

“A lot of people tell me they are,” he says. “I think of it as a social statement. This is album is a reaction to my environment, just like my other albums.” 

Breathless begins with a version of “Compared to What,” the Civil Rights-era jazz-funk tune first recorded by Roberta Flack in 1968 but popularized by Les McCann and Eddie Harris in 1971. Blanchard cut it for a film soundtrack, and when the filmmakers went with a different version, he kept this arrangement and pulled it out for the sessions.

“It’s this false notion of what we call freedom we have in this country,” Blanchard says. “Try to keep it real compared to what? What are you talking about? The land of the free and the home of the brave? That doesn’t truly exist for everybody. Look at the economic structure of this country. Look at what happens to big corporations versus little businessmen. It’s a farce. The older I get, I get tired of this stuff. Stop lying.”

To update it, he had to think first about grooves that are relevant today, particularly to young people, and then about how to represent the thoughts in the song. The McCann and Harris version tries to rally listeners by being better than those holding them back—more soulful, more talented, and more insightful as they see through the bullshit with bitter wit. Blanchard focuses on the song’s rage, and that more than 40 years later people still see through the same lies, encounter the same dead ends, and realize that progress is out of their hands. 

“That’s why it’s uptempo,” he says. “That’s why it has the grooves that it has. That’s why I put the organ in there in certain spots. That’s why my trumpet is wailing.” 

“Compared to What” announces Blanchard’s interest in exploring grooves on the album. They’re a fascination of his since he was a teenager in the ‘70s listening to Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire in addition to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, but other sounds and ideas motivated his work until recently.  As Breathless and his show at Le Petit Theatre during Jazz Fest demonstrated, Charles Altura’s guitar, Fabian Almazan’s piano and synthesizers, and Blanchard’s trumpet and keyboards gave the grooves a contemporary sound and broadened Blanchard’s musical palate; only Donald Ramsey’s electric bass and Oscar Seaton’s drums were came through without obvious sonic alteration. Blanchard doesn’t specifically link his sound with electronic dance music, but he doesn’t wholly separate them either and sees the project as a way to connect technology and jazz.

“I see an opportunity to inspire some young people who might not think of jazz,” Blanchard says.

His interest in youth tracks back to his work with the Monk Institute and the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, but the issues are also personal. While working on the E-Collective album, Blanchard watched his daughter graduate from NOCCA, and her relationships with her friends as mediated in part by technology impressed him as they were far more open and accepting of each others’ ethnic, class and sexual differences than he and his friends were at her age. “They’re just friends, and they have a high level of tolerance and understanding,” he says. “That’s something adults should start to pay attention to. They celebrate their differences.”

At the same time, the anger, frustration, and anxiety that gave Breathless direction had roots in his family as well. A woman told her husband that she thought she saw a young black man with dreads who was trying to break in running from the back of their house. George Zimmerman-style, the husband saw Blanchard’s son Oliver walking to Dillard to go to school and followed him, assuming he was the guy. 

“He followed my son all the way to Dillard,” Blanchard says. “This guy calls the cops. Seven patrol cars pull up. They went in and arrested my son, put him in handcuffs, walked him out of the building to a crowd that had gathered in front of the building.” The police took Oliver to the woman’s house, where her story started to fall apart, but he wasn’t released until an officer on the scene who knew Blanchard saw his son and vouched for him. 

“There are so many assumptions in that story that can cause the tension that we see in this country right now,” Blanchard says. “It’s frustrating that I am 53 years old and I’m dealing with the same crazy issues. It’s absurd.”