Terence Blanchard featuring the E-Collective – Live (2018)

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What do you do when your country seems to be falling into ever more violent times, and there seems an out-of-control spiraling of toxicity? What can you say? How can you make an attempt to offer a message of peace and restoration of humanity? If you are a five-time Grammy award-winning musician and you have a powerful weapon at your disposal, you use it.

That is just what Terence Blanchard has done with his new release, Live (Blue Note) featuring the E-Collective – who are Charles Altura on electric guitar, David Ginyard on bass, Fabian Almazan on keyboards and piano and Oscar Seaton on drums.

Terence Blanchard began playing piano at age 5, later taking up the trumpet and finding friendship with fellow trumpet player Wynton Marsalis at summer camps. He played with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1982 before joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He released his first self-titled solo album on Columbia Records in 1991, followed by many works and over 40 movie scores, including feature films and documentaries for director Spike Lee (including Malcolm X, and the soon-to-be-released BlacKkKlansman).

Along the way, Terence Blanchard has become known for his musical works of conscience. Reading about him, you clearly feel his belief that there is a need for people to speak out in the absence of personalities with strong impact like Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and others. With them gone, the responsibility for giving others a voice falls on those who have the presence and tools to do so, to continue voicing protest and common sense in the face of violence and continuing prejudice. Blanchard’s inspirations are people such as Max Roach with his Freedom Now Suite, John Coltrane playing “Alabama,” Louis Armstrong talking about what was going on with his people any time he was interviewed, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter living by their Buddhist philosophy.

With these tenets and influences, Terence Blanchard has continued the musical dialogue concerning violence between law enforcement and African American citizens. His 2015 Grammy-nominated album Breathless was titled in acknowledgement of Eric Garner’s last words (“I can’t breathe“) while being held by police officers.

Live features recordings from three performances in Minnesota, Cleveland and Dallas; the symbolism of these locations cannot fail to resonate with American people as they were places where peaceful protest led to violent deaths. The E-Collective themselves could be said to be symbolic of what Terence Blanchard’s vision foresees. There is a pianist who is Cuban, raised in Florida, and has launched the Biophilia label with a focus on making the planet green – rather than just making money. His bass player has a faith and walks tall in his beliefs every day. His guitar player is a Stanford alumnus, studies anthropology and apparently will sit at the piano and play Chopin after a show. Finally, Blanchard’s drummer grew up playing gospel in church in Chicago and has performed with Lionel Richie for 16 years. So, they are a coming together of people from very different backgrounds, ways and mindsets, but united by music.

“We’re five very different personalities with different visions who play together for a common goal: creating music that hopefully heals hearts and opens minds,” Blanchard said. “Live is an album for these troubled times, yet it’s also an album filled with hope. We want to encourage listeners to speak out and talk to those around them, discuss with those around them and heal with those around them.”

Terence Blanchard delivers powerful messages on Live, whether you seek musical or political enlightenment, or whether you just want to experience listening to what a great musicians can do. From the outset, the advice is not to expect soaring, extended trumpet solos. Blanchard uses a synthesized sound at times, which introduces a doubling, echo effect on some of his solos. Whilst used to expand the musical sounds, it means the solo is slightly compromised musically at times. However, in terms of providing harmony, the horn is used perfectly.

This album is themed around the issues surrounding gun violence, but there remains a constant back-drop of gentleness, even if it’s overridden at times by manic, emotive tones. The balm in all this is the emergence time and again of a peace, a gentleness pulling at the listener, a message perhaps that eventually, all may be well. Like the musicians, if you have the tools, it is what you do with them that matters.

Live opens with a compere introducing Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective, prolonged applause, a keyboard note and then spoken words from a speech by Cornel West. The words speak of a man with ideas, being a jazz man in the world – his models being jazz and blues men who have a vision. They have to be true to themselves, because imitation is suicide. He talks about love, Monk and Coltrane, finding your own voice. It’s all met with resounding approval by the audience.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Terence Blanchard joins us to discuss his moving original motion picture score for Spike Lee’s celebrated 1992 film ‘Malcolm X,’ and whether he caught the acting bug.]

The collective then flow into “Hannibal,” a Marcus Miller composition which first appeared on Miles Davis’ 1989 album Amandla and is a tribute to the military general of the same name. (Amandla, incidentally, is the Zulu word for “power.”) This a combination of delicate and intricate piano, calming guitar riffs over the top, amd use of the synthesizer to create the echoey, spacey sounds before Terence picks up his horn and blows.

When he does, it is with unexpected gentleness and simplicity, which contrasts well with the expectations set up. There is a James Bond element to the chord progressions at one point, as they ascend in increments under the trumpet – until finally, the trumpet soars, briefly hitting the heights before the synth and guitar take over again. It is not until about half way through this 11-minute track that there is a pure sense of cohesion between Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective, though it has surely been sensed and now unleashed. It’s worth the wait.

Now, we have coherence and interaction, a sense of listening to each other and a true collective has materialized. Is that part of the message: Work and it will happen? Maybe; if it is, it is very clever. The trumpet shrieks off, the others respond, harmony rules and everything feels OK again. Even if unintentional, this is masterful and clever, because it somehow reflects the sense of disorganization and disharmony finally coming together to create gentle togetherness.

“Kaos” is a Terence Blanchard composition and starts with beautiful piano work with a gentle bass line over which the right-hand notes sing sweetly. The bass lines then works its way up and the electronically enhanced right hand notes are allowed to echo over the top, as the whole piece becomes more percussive. A gorgeous, crashing harmony section leads to a developing guitar entry and soon the electric bass creates a more ominous tone. Blanchard starts a solo and then there is a wonderful section of delicate piano lines over steadfast heavy bass riffs which are repeated again and again – indicating a sense of something unchangeable, challenged by the piano.

Blanchard says, “Chaos is what we’re experiencing now, and also where we’re headed. 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.” This is reflected effectively in the changing dialogue of the composition.

You can put whatever messages you want into “Kaos”; you can understand this or not, but musically this is great and incredibly engaging. Some good solo work and also great integration when the band play as one. Just before the 8-minute mark, it all gets taken down quiet, before Terence Blanchard introduces himself again with a trumpet solo under which the drums set up a mesmerizing rhythm, counterpointed beautifully by the piano. The trumpet is divine but also the bass and drums on this section, which act as a secure safety net delivering the perfect counter to Terence’s soaring and ecstatic top notes. The end is crashing and met with rapturous applause. Quite right, too.

“Unchanged,” a composition by guitarist Charles Altura, begins with his gentle, reflective solo creating a desolate and haunting melody, into which the drum inserts intricate rhythmic patterns, delicate first, then a gradual build towards a slow-down. This sets up the rewind, as the band engage in an ever-increasing dialogue, each having more to say, including Terence’s trumpet. Four minutes in and a significant change can be felt, almost an anger, and the piece builds over the guitar solo work once more. The drums join and the piano emerges from the frenzy and, you realize it has been there for ages, just unassuming. Now, it sets the theme, a playful and time-changing solo section supported by drums and bass.

The piece gentles down, then keyboards have a solo and then the drums, who have been trundling along all this time, emerge into the spotlight over the keyboard and piano. Some lovely interchanges and swapping of solo sections, a give and take which comes across beautifully live. “Unchanged” was written to represent the frustration and helplessness of going in circles with no resolve, from peaceful protest to the rage of black lives, of hollow victories and unending madness. This piece is intense but also very beautiful musically and the clever ways gentle sounds emerge which have been in the background all along, add a sense of peace always emerging. The ending however, feels unnervingly like acceptance.

A tick-tock marching rhythm kicks off “Soldiers,” before there is a mix of vocals and then the real music starts with a horn fanfare and the keyboard echoing patterns, setting up a sense of this lifting high as the number progresses. This is more an electro-pop number, but underpinned by good, sound jazz references, with just a touch of guitar ’70s music in there, too. A number with a bit of everything. The brassy end section is lovely. Personally, the unclear vocals over the music take away the essence, rather than add to it, but many will understand the reasoning.

“Dear Jimi” is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix and has synthesized blues riffs, and a lovely melody line. Blanchard wrote it because he liked the fact Jimi talked constantly of love. It involves no trumpet, but some lovely melodic keyboard work, using riffs and guitar sounds which emulate the great Hendrix. “Can Anybody Hear Me” has a darker sense behind it; this is a number with lots of off-set rhythms, playing against each other before coming together. There’s sense of lots of differences, but the eventual creation of oneness. The rolling theme, which works itself out part way through, is interrupted by a percussive, off-kilter rhythm. Over the changes, the trumpet soars. In “Can Anybody Hear Me,” the vast differences of life rhythms are felt, yet there is also a sense of togetherness, because the collective interpret the music so well together and fall in and out of step in harmony – the art of great arranging.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Fabian Almazan goes in depth on his lengthy collaborative tenure with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, his journey to the U.S., and the continuing fight for marriage equality.]

“Choices” was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is begun with a gorgeous piano solo, over which the trumpet enters with a desolate melody, building with bass and percussion until a more established theme emerges. The piano reinstates a melody along slightly different lines. Over 17 minutes, there follows a wave line of story-telling sound pictures with gentleness; strolling rhythms; faster, more diverse sections; and sections where the peaceful lines of the piano are still there but buried under heavy, top lines from drums and bass so they get frantic before re-emerging even gentler than before. If this is a political message, and you feel it, it works really well, the gentleness having to become aggressive before re-emerging in its true nature. Peace will triumph. The noise builds as everyone blends and merges in a sound wave of collective notices and notations, and the trumpet states its leadership with the top notes soaring off.

Live a great album musically, and it is clear Terence Blanchard has surrounded himself with accomplished and devastatingly capable musicians, well able to interpret his compositional works. I would like to hear this in concert, as it feels a little like some of the energy and freneticism is lost in the recording. The noise is softened, the aggression somehow quieted, as if just a tad afraid to fully unleash. Any holding back of emotion, however, is made up for in the sheer musicality of the band. This is a great album, and one worthy of many listens.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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