Terence Blanchard didn’t form his fusion band the E-Collective with the intention of making politically and socially informed music. But, he says, “Real life was happening, and we couldn’t avoid that. So instead of making a feel-good record, we decided to have music that was inspired by these things that were happening in our country.”
Live, the group’s newly released Blue Note followup to 2015’s Breathless, was recorded in front of audiences in U.S. cities affected by high-profile instances of gun violence, committed both by police and against law enforcement. The album features Blanchard on trumpet and keyboards, Charles Altura on electric guitar, David Ginyard Jr. on electric bass, Fabian Almazan on keyboards and piano and Oscar Seaton playing drums. Dr. Cornel West contributes a couple of spoken-word passages. Blanchard, 56, recently spoke with JazzTimes about the album’s social and political implications, the enduring inspiration he finds in Hendrix and more. JEFF TAMARKIN
JazzTimes: What, specifically, inspired the music on Live?
Terence Blanchard: We couldn’t abandon the topic after Breathless, because you turn on the television any day of the week and they’re not talking about gun control, not talking about Michigan or Puerto Rico or the deficit, which totally amazes me. So we wanted to continue the discussion, or at least try to create a vehicle which will allow us to have the discussion about gun control around the country.
How do you translate that message to mostly instrumental music? How do audiences know that this is what you are trying to say?
It’s hard, obviously, because there are no words. I talk about it during the show. But the music is inspired by different aspects of it. [The track] “Kaos” is just that. I feel like we’re in the midst of it, living in a chaotic moment. “Soldiers” is a tune that was written because I look at all of the social workers that are still out there fighting the good fight, and they don’t get any recognition. “Can Anyone Hear Me” is self-explanatory. Look at those kids in Florida that went up to D.C. and created that day of protest. Look at what happened to them as a result. People try to eviscerate them. We should have been celebrating that those kids were smart and passionate about their beliefs. They weren’t sitting around smoking dope and getting high all day every day. Then we did a tribute to Jimi Hendrix [“Dear Jimi”], which I think fits because Jimi talked about the power of love. It’s one of those things we have to get back to, man.
Was Hendrix a big influence on you?
Yeah. One of the things I love about Jimi Hendrix is that most people don’t realize when they listen to his music that only three guys are playing. You go, “Wow, wait a minute! Only three dudes?” Not only that, but when you listen to his stuff there were great arrangements to all of those tunes. I just thought he was a visionary. To me he was very much like Miles Davis. He wasn’t a great singer, but that didn’t matter. He was trying to convey an idea. I heard that the two of them were talking about putting a band together. That would have been killing.
Does the message in this music tie in for you with the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements?
I think it ties in because what it fights against is bigotry and oppression and ignorance. #MeToo, what is that about? That’s about women being abused by guys who are in power; they have control issues. Black Lives Matter, again, is people who feel like they’re not being considered as human beings. It all deals with humanity and how we need to learn how to celebrate our differences.
Why was it important to you to record this album live?
We just felt like when we made the [first] record it didn’t really capture what we do live. This is a band that started through live performance.
We tried to go to some places where they had tragic events with gun violence. In Minneapolis we went to the school where [police-violence victim] Philando Castile worked, and we met a lot of the kids. It breaks your heart, because when you look at all of those kids they look like a goddamn Jackson Pollock painting. Those kids were coming from all different walks of life, and it was amazing to think that a cop just looked at [Castile’s] skin and made a judgment about this guy that was totally wrong, totally based on some bias. [Castile] did all of the right things—he told the cop he had a gun and he still lost his life.
We also went to Cleveland because of [12-year-old victim] Tamir Rice. One of the things about that situation that has always frustrated me is the fact that I was told by friends of mine who are in law enforcement that when you have a call for a man with a gun, you don’t drive up on the suspect; you create a perimeter and try to lock it down and get everybody else out of the perimeter. So, for me, that’s gross negligence the way they handled that situation.
What was the reaction like when you played the shows on this record?
People are getting it. Some people are angered by it. One guy in Madison, Wis., he came up to us after the show and basically told me, “Fuck you and your human-rights bullshit,” which was amazing. I’m like, “OK, cool,” but we still got his money; he came to the show. But there was a guy in Cleveland. He really blew my mind because he came up to me and he said, “I was expecting to hear A Tale of God’s Will [Blanchard’s 2007 lament for post-Katrina New Orleans], but when you started playing you sounded so angry. Then you said what the music was about and I said to myself, ‘Well, if the guy who created A Tale of God’s Will is this angry, I have to rethink my position on gun control.’”
Your liner notes for Live begin with a version of Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Jefferson was a slave owner. Are you prepared to take some shit for that?
Yeah, of course, but that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have said something truly meaningful. I think it’s an amazing quote. The thing about it for me is that a lot of those folks during that period didn’t think slavery was a crime in their twisted minds. I understand people being frustrated about that, but at the same time, that quote is seriously valid to everything that we’re dealing with today.
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