Terence Blanchard is a top-tier jazz trumpeter, with five Grammy Awards from 13 nominations and more than 30 albums.
He took over for Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the tender age of 20, following it up with a more than 30-year solo career, leading his own ensembles through acclaimed performances in clubs, concert halls and at festivals.
That said, you’re in for a surprise if you come to Jazz in June Tuesday expecting Blanchard to play hard bop or acoustic jazz.
“I have a band called the E-Collective,” Blanchard said by phone from his New Orleans home. “It’s groove-oriented and it’s a band that’s got guitar, keyboards, trumpet with effects, bass and drums. We’ve been together for two years. We made an album that’s called 'Breathless' that got a Grammy nomination and we’re working on some new music. We just recorded some new songs for an album that will probably come out next year. That’s what we’re going to be presenting for you guys in Nebraska.”
So how did Blanchard, 55, find his way to the funky, groove-oriented jazz of “Breathless”?
“I was scoring a film called 'Inside Man’ that needed some groove kind of music for the score,” he said. “I was working with drummer Oscar Seaton. We thought maybe we should do this at some point. Nine, 10 years later, here we are. Oscar was working with Lionel Richie so we had to wait. But it got to the point where it was if I don’t do it now, it’s never going to get done. It’s a lot of fun.
“It’s a big change stylistically, but it’s not a big stretch for me. I grew up playing all different styles of music. And the guys in the band can really play. ...These guys are brilliant musicians. I’ve been saying E-Collective is the best example of what America should be. You look at these five guys and you’d never put them in a band. But we come together.”
The other members of E-Collective include Fabian Almazan (piano), Charles Altura (guitar) and Donald Ramsey (bass).
While it is primarily instrumental, “Breathless” is a politically charged album with a couple of biting songs with vocals, including the title cut, which comes from Eric Garner’s repeated plea “I can’t breathe” when he was killed while being arrested by New York City police in 2014.
“While we’re creating the music, life is going on,” Blanchard said. “We had to figure how to address that. That’s the reason for ‘Breathless.’ This next record has the same kind of theme. We’re thinking of calling it ‘Travel Ban.' It has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s travel ban. It’s from the fact that some people can’t travel in this country for fear of law enforcement, of getting shot or arrested for no reason.
“There doesn’t seem to be any recourse for people like this. People keep getting shot. They put out statistics that show it’s not that many people or that big of a percentage. But if one person is shot who isn’t committing a crime, it’s too many.”
Blanchard’s social-political music appears to connect directly with the films of Spike Lee, which he has scored since 1991. Those pictures include “Malcolm X,” “Get on the Bus,” “4 Little Girls” and “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary in which Blanchard appears along with his mother who lost her home in the flooding. Most recently, they collaborated on 2015’s “Chi-Raq.”
“I make those connections,” Blanchard said. “I lived them in the case of Katrina, you saw me go through it on the screen. With ‘Chi-Raq,' it’s a huge issue that Bernie Sanders has really been trying to bring out, but people don’t see the full extent of it. When you have the economic inequality and you have no jobs for young people, they resort to doing things that make them money. It’s a huge issue.
“It doesn’t have to be that way. The most frustrating thing about it is the level of greed that is there. How much money do you need? At some point, it’s become like a Monopoly game. That’s not good for the country, for people.”
You have free articles remaining.
Blanchard, who will discuss his work following a free 3 p.m. screening of “Chi-Raq” at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center before Tuesday’s concert, makes no effort to hide his political beliefs.
He was seen and quoted by the media last month while watching the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. P.G. T. Beauregard from a New Orleans intersection near where he grew up and went to high school.
Not surprisingly, Blanchard says he believes President Donald Trump is damaging the country, in large part through encouragement of some of his supporters.
“I get why they’re frustrated,” he said. “I understand it and it’s real. But he’s not the guy to solve the issue and these things have a trickle-down effect. You’re seeing it in more bullying, in more racial conflict. It’s having a huge effect on our lives.”
But Blanchard said the country can’t be healed by further division, politically or racially, and cannot resort to violence to solve any problem.
“I’ve always said I admire Nelson Mandela,” he said. “When he was released there were a lot of people who were talking about going out and killing people, putting people in prison. He said ‘No what happened to us was horrible, painful and cruel. But we have to move forward and we can’t look at them as enemies.’ That’s a Ghandi-esque approach.’
“Everyone’s frustrated because of the political system and nothing gets done. It’s going to come to a head at some point. I think this guy (Trump) is pushing it too far. After Hurricane Katrina hit, we didn’t have red states and blue states. We had people who wanted to care for others. I saw that firsthand. We need to get to that.”
Blanchard has scored dozens of films, sometimes working in styles far removed from jazz. That has, perhaps inevitably, caused a dynamic interchange between the scores and jazz.
"They definitely feed off each other,” he said. “The jazz part of my career has been affected by what I’ve done in film. It has had a huge effect with what I was doing with my quartet before I formed E-Collective and now -- bringing in different styles and approaches. And it’s vice versa.
“Being a jazz musician and having the ability to think on my feet has helped me in the film world -- in being open to new sounds and new approaches and when you’re in the studio, having to think on your feet and make changes right now.”
While they work together, Blanchard said, if forced, he’d pick playing jazz over scoring films.
“I’ve always wanted to be a performer,” he said. “I enjoy both, but the performing thing has always had my attention. The thing about performing is when you’re playing with great musicians, they make you grow in where they take you. That’s what I need. So if I had to choose one, I’d take performing.”
Asked if there was anything else he believed he had to do in his career, Blanchard quipped “probably drag racing” then added:
“There’s always going to be things that come up. But I’ve never said ‘I want to do this.’ I’ve had a full career. I’ve written an opera, I’m writing my second one I’ve been commissioned to write for other jazz ensembles. I’ve scored over 50 films. I’ve got my groups. For me, it’s just about what the next challenge is going to be.”