Terence Blanchard recently dropped his 20th album, Breathless, with his latest quintet, The E-Collective (featuring vocals by PJ Morton of Maroon 5). With Breathless, Blanchard joins the growing list of contemporary artists (D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole) utilizing their musical reach as a way to affect change in America. The album’s fusion of funk, jazz and blues is a statement piece, and Blanchard’s take on the protest album. With the “Black lives matter” movement still on the lips and minds of the masses, EBONY.com took the opportunity to speak with the 53-year-old trumpeter about the project and why he believes it’s time to stop dialoguing about race matters and start acting.
EBONY: Breathless is your attempt to underscore three very powerful words, among Eric Garner’s last, that have now been heard around the world: “I can’t breathe.” How did you decide that this is what the album was going to represent, and what do these words mean to you specifically?
Terence Blanchard: It came about because these incidents keep recurring, and I felt that I needed to do something, to say something. The more we started to work on the music as a group, the more apparent it was that this was going to be our statement that can hopefully change some minds and some hearts. And let me be clear about this: for me it is not about a discussion or opening up a dialogue. I am so sick of that. We’ve been having dialogues for far too long with no action, no change.
EBONY: In the past year or so alone, incidents like Garner’s are becoming epidemic. What needs to be done to change the times we’re living in?
TB: What we need to change is the legislation and policies. We need to do something concrete, because all these “discussions” we’re having aren’t changing people’s actions or attitudes. When you look throughout our history at the civil rights movement, legislation is what changes things in this country. I think that if some of these guys know that when they do these things—killing us, planting evidence, trying to silence us—if they know that they will end up going to jail and start being held accountable for some of their actions, then things will start to change. The whole idea of being a public servant is a noble idea. But in practicality, it has become one of the most non-respected entities in our country. And you would think that people would be shamed into just walking the straight and narrow, but they’re not.
EBONY: On the title track, you convert the “I” to “we”: “We can’t breathe,” reminding us it’s an American problem, a world problem, not just a “Black” problem.
TB: It’s one of those things where I’m so extremely tired and frustrated, because it’s senseless and it is so damaging to the whole idea of what this country is supposed to be. There are a lot of things that are great about this country, but there are still so many things that have to change. It’s partially about living in an idea of America that doesn’t actually exist, and the hypocrisy of it all is what infuriates me.
What gets me is the lies, and the assumption of our ignorance. We’ve seen that there has been a systematic oppression of people of color. This oppression is holding us back as a country. There are a lot of things that we need to change, that we need to work on, to make this truly a great place, not just for a few, but for everyone.
You know what really got me about the situation in South Carolina? Both of these men were part of the Navy Reserves, the guy who got shot and the guy who shot him. Navy “brothers.” That’s what prompted me to write “See Me As I Am.” Because one of the things that most people of color know that we to do, unconsciously, is that we feel ourselves being defensive. Because you can tell that people are making judgments about you without really knowing you, and that, to me, is so unfair. Everyone is allowed to have their first impressions, but they are just that, they are not lasting.
This is what America is supposed to be, we need to embrace our differences, learn from them.
EBONY: The E-Collective includes Charles Altura (guitar), Fabian Almazan (piano), Donald Ramsey (bass) and Oscar Seaton (drums). Tell us about how this new quintet came to be.
TB: First of all, we didn’t set out to create an album that was about #ICan’tBreathe. We wanted to figure out what our band was going to be. What was this E-Collective? We did a tour in Europe last fall, and while we were on the road, we realized what worked and what didn’t. It was constantly evolving. I would change this, add that, revamp an interlude or take pieces out all together. Being a jazz musician, you’re open to whatever possibilities there are, and we were all open to the musicality that each of us brought to the table as individuals, and it just worked. It’s also around that time that all the social injustice back home was really blowing up, so it was on all our minds.
Our album cover was a play on an image of a mangrove and its system of the roots. The image of those roots really crystallized for me what was happening in our band with these five totally different personalities that came together to make this one great thing. This exemplifies what we need to do in America. We need to celebrate our differences, not try to make each other change.
EBONY: Not all 13 tracks on the album are songs of protest. Breathless contains covers of Hank Williams and Coldplay, and a commendable reimagining of “Compared to What.”
TB: “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but Time” was something I originally thought of doing when we were trying to figure out what the band’s sound was going to be. It’s a break from the more serious titles and concept pieces that make up the body of the album. “Compared to What” is an arrangement I had originally worked on before but had put away. I pulled it out and brought it back to life because I thought it was a protest song by a great jazz musician who was working his way into more contemporary sounds at the time, and I thought that the words are still so relevant today. These words are relevant for all of America, not just a certain segment of it.
How do we receive and manifest the promise that this country has made to all of its citizens, and how do we manifest that for everybody? It’s a difficult thing when we have so many different cultures. But if people learn how to celebrate and respect what others have to offer as opposed to fearing it, and trying to change it into something that makes them feel comfortable, that’s the starting point. That’s what will start changing things.
EBONY: If people take away anything from listening to Breathless, what would you want it to be?
TB: It’s a mixed bag. I want the music to be enjoyable, first and foremost. But as a group, from the very beginning, we hoped that the sounds we created would inspire people—especially young people who might not otherwise pick up an instrument and then start to develop their craft. I hope it can motivate the listeners. I want to change hearts and minds.
EBONY: Despite the frustration, there’s a sense of rejuvenation and rebirth on this album. There are bright spots to be found.
TB: It’s true, there are bright spots. It’s soulful and funky and I want people to enjoy it. It’s many things, and I understand I’m an idealist, I get that. I look back and I know I get into this “preachy” mode when I get into this stuff, because it’s really bugging me man, it’s on me heavily. We keep saying “I can’t breathe,” but that’s only a small marker for what’s going on. It’s really about human rights, that's what it’s about.
Janelle Watkins is a writer and culturist who eats, plays and drinks around the globe. She is also editorial director of TheSceneinTO, a Toronto-, NYC- and Miami-based online magazine. Follow Janelle on Twitter @theSceneinTO.