Forty minutes into his own performance at the Cistern, Terence Blanchard had played trumpet for about five minutes. He'd spent most of the concert standing near the back of the stage as his four-piece supporting band jammed through a nearly non-stop segue of original songs and classics like Marcus Miller's "Hannibal." Halfway through, it felt like Blanchard was more of the musical director of the E-Collective than a member of the band, let alone its star.
The band's modernist approach to jazz, both free form and intricately complex, bounced from groove to discombobulation. Drummer Oscar Seaton and bassist David Ginyard (a Winnsboro, SC, native) ensured that we never lost interest, locking in vamps and grooves while guitarist Matt Sewell and pianist Fabian Almazan took journeys on their instruments. Early on, Blanchard seemed half-engaged, stepping to the stage to lay a few notes and arpeggios over the top of it all, before retreating again to let the band do the talking.
Blanchard's band looked young, but each was clearly a virtuoso, and I began to wonder if he hadn't poached the cream of the crop from some elite music program in New York or New Orleans. When he finally spoke, almost an hour into the 90-minute show, he confirmed as much, at least in part. Sewell, he explained, was his 19-year-old student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He'd agreed to fill in for Blanchard's usual guitarist, Charles Altura, and had practiced with the band for the first time that afternoon (If he hadn't told us, we'd have never suspected it).
Before introducing the band, Blanchard said that he was "very excited" to play Spoleto, a "multicultural festival," adding, "This is who we are as a people and as a country, and I'm happy to be a part of it."
That address to the audience served as a turning point, from intriguing mystery to comfortable party. Before then, we'd been left to ponder everything on our own — the MacBooks poised atop Almazan's grand piano and Blanchard's keyboard, the spoken word sample tracks played in the background of the music, the deep delay and fuzz effects on Blanchard's trumpet.
When Blanchard spoke, however, our questions were answered. There was a theme to this mostly instrumental music — social injustice — that stems from the group's 2016 release, Breathless, named in recognition of Eric Garner's chokehold death in New York. Blanchard explained that they recorded the album in four cities — St. Paul, Cleveland, Dallas and New York — as they examined police brutality and gun violence around the country.
Once we'd gotten a taste of Blanchard's humor, motivations and method, the vibe loosened up and everything made sense. Seventy minutes into the show, Blanchard acknowledged that the night's music was different than what some fans may expect. "The cool thing about having this band is that I get to play other types of music that I've loved," he explained. "I get to be creative with it." His next song was the first time he'd "written for a hero that wasn't a jazz artist," he offered, before introducing "Dear Jimi," which featured a heavy, head-banging riff driven by Ginyard's bass, plenty of guitar, and the evening's best use of the fuzz and delay effects on Blanchard's trumpet.
The band left the stage at 10:30 p.m., and after a standing ovation, most patrons assumed that the show was over and headed to the exits. But the house lights never came up (that's your cue, folks), and Blanchard and the E-Collective retook the stage for an unexpected "late night hang." The chosen finale, "Talk to Me," proved to be the funkiest groove of the night. Even young guitarist Sewell saved his best work for last, and the final ovation was even more spirited than the first. Like a good teacher should, Blanchard let his pupils shine first, before stepping into the spotlight to remind us all that he's a master like no other.