The riotously danceable cover of Les McCann’s classic “Compared to What” that opens Terence Blanchard’s Breathless sets up the counterintuitive mix of groove-oriented partying and protest to follow brilliantly. It also serves as fair warning to bop purists that Blanchard and his new band, the E-Collective, are exploring something different here.
The protest can be spoken (by Blanchard’s son JRei Oliver or, on “Talk to Me,” by Dr. Cornel West), sung (by PJ Morton Jr., a member of the pop group Maroon 5, but not its frontman) or neither (Blanchard’s slow-groove “See Me as I Am”). Sometimes it’s set aside entirely in favor of pure fun, as on Morton’s soul reconfiguration of Hank Williams’ “I Ain’t Got Nothing But Time” or the instrumental keyboards-and-guitar chase of Fabian Almazan and Charles Altura on the short track “Tom & Jerry.” Obvious highlights include the title track, which references Eric Garner’s death-by-NYPD-chokehold last summer; Almazan’s mood-shifting extended piece “Everglades”; Blanchard’s hard-driving, Buddhism-inspired “Confident Selflessness”; the guitar-powered pieces “Soldiers” (funky and fleet) and “Cosmic Warrior” (futuristic, with an edge of heavy-metal menace); and the stately instrumental cover of Coldplay’s “Midnight” that closes the album.
Blanchard says he and drummer Oscar Seaton, with whom he has recorded film scores, had been talking about an album like this for years before they finally made time to do it. Donald Ramsey, whom Blanchard has known since their high school days in New Orleans, keeps the E-Collective vibe on track and flowing on electric bass. Blanchard’s trumpet, of course, provides scorching firepower atop the band’s assortment of infectious grooves. It may not be jazz as we know it, but it’s soulful, sophisticated and worth meeting on its own terms. And it’s good that Blanchard finally got around to it.