In a career that's spanned almost 40 years, trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Terence Blanchard has done just about all one can do in the jazz world. He studied under Ellis Marsalis at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He's toured with Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton. He's won five Grammys: Best Jazz Performance – Group, Best Instrumental Jazz Album, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo. And he's released 20 studio albums as a leader that encompass hard-bop, standards, blues, and ballads.
While doing all of that, he also became one of the most prolific film-score composers in the world, working extensively with Spike Lee (including Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, and Crooklyn) and somehow finding time to collaborate with other great directors like Taylor Hackford and Ron Shelton.
But his most recent album, Breathless, might be the biggest surprise of his career. With his new band, the E-Collective, Blanchard created a relentlessly funky album heavier on grooves and electronic elements than bebop and ballads. There's certainly still plenty of his gentle-but-exploratory jazz playing on the album, but as a whole it's like nothing Blanchard has done before.
Interestingly enough, though, you can find hints of this new sound in his soundtrack work, specifically in two of his film scores from the mid-2000s.
"I'd been into all kinds of different music all my life," Blanchard says. "And even with my jazz quartet I'd started using elements of electronic grooves in my show. So I didn't look at it as a big change. But I was doing some groove-based music for the Inside Man score, and I used the same rhythm section on another one called Talk to Me. We had a lot of fun doing it, and we all said we should put together a band. We talked about it over the course of a couple of years, so I was very excited to go ahead and do it."
Blanchard says that his soundtrack work will quite often give him ideas that he takes into his own albums, from orchestral score ideas to electronic percussion. "It happens all the time," he says. "That's why I started using electronic instruments with my jazz quartet in the first place. I was getting comfortable with the other colors that I was using for a film, and I started looking for ways to incorporate that into my shows."
In his mind, moving into this new sonic territory was just like bringing a new tool out of his toolbox. "I'd been writing for orchestras and I've been writing for jazz ensembles, and it was just about finding different colors and textures," Blanchard says. "That's really what it is. I don't try to use them for anything that a real musician can do. I try to use them for the types of sonic things that we can't do."
He does acknowledge that his new sound came as something of a shock to his die-hard jazz fans, but the E-Collective was able to win over the skeptics.
"It is different, I accept that," he says. "It's a departure, and people might have been coming to the shows looking for something different. But the main thing is that the responses have been really great. When we first formed the group, we didn't make any announcement about it or anything, we just went on tour. And what was funny was you'd see people looking like 'This is not what I thought it was going to be.' But by the third song, they'd be tapping their feet. So it was all good."
Whatever the reaction might have been, Blanchard feels that change is part of his responsibility as an artist, whether the audience comes along or not. "To be an artist is to evolve," he says. "My body evolves with age; my spirit evolves, so my art needs to evolve, too. I was always taught that you never stay in one spot anyway, because even if you think you're in the same spot, the world's moving forward anyway, so you're not."
And if that evolution involves bringing electronics into his music, so be it. If it means writing a song like Breathless' title track, a reference to Eric Garner's final words as the New York Police Department held Garner in a chokehold ("I can't breathe"), that's fine, too.
"I don't know if I feel a responsibility to be socially conscious or political, I think it's just who I am," he says. "I'm a news junkie. I try to be socially conscious, I try to be spiritually aware and if I can try to help people heal or change some hearts and minds, why not? "
Blanchard's willingness to follow his muse wherever it takes him makes him the perfect film-scoring artist in some ways, because he can be flexible based on the material, or the directors. "It's a very collaborative process," he says. "Spike, for example, is very knowledgeable when it comes to music. Spike likes very melodic content. He likes you to be able to sing the melodies when you walk out of the theater. And he gives me lots of room. He's not standing over my shoulder. I've had that before with other directors that I've worked with, and it's kind of an unfortunate situation because it makes you second-guess yourself, whereas when you feel comfortable and you're working with people who trust you, it makes you work harder."