Terence Blanchard on ‘Breathless’

12 02 2016

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GoNola.com, February 2016 [*This one’s from GoNola’s 20 questions series; I’m skipping that part here since I don’t write those Q’s and just including the text from our discussion about the album.]

The first time Terence Blanchard heard John Coltrane’s 1963 recording, “Alabama,” written in response to the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls, he had to take a break before the end of the piece.

I had to stop listening because it was having such a profound effect on me,” he recalls. “Same thing happened when I was listening to the score to ‘Schindler’s List.’ I guess the thing about both of those pieces of music is that it deals with man’s inhumanity against man.”

The trumpeter’s latest Grammy-nominated album, “Breathless,” tackles a similar concept. The title refers to the fruitless “I can’t breathe” cry Eric Garner let out 11 times in July 2015 while police in Staten Island, N.Y., held him facedown in a chokehold that ended his life. Police had approached Garner with a suspicion he was selling individual cigarettes – a charge Garner denied before asserting he was sick of being harassed by police.

As protests over his death erupted across the country, Blanchard was moved to respond in music. But when he and his band the E-Collective began working on the material, headline after headline poured in, describing new instances police brutality against African-Americans. At that point, the album’s concept expanded.

“Injustice has always been a huge issue with me,” he says. “And pieces of music [like ‘Alabama’ and ‘Schindler’s List’] have opened the door, emotionally, for me to experience something in a limited way. Obviously, I wasn’t there to experience either one of those events in our history, but it’s given me an emotional window to climb through and kind of feel a small part of the pain of people who suffered through those periods in our history.”

“Stepping back through it,” he says, “it’s motivated me to do what I can to turn the tide against ignorance and intolerance.”

“Breathless,” which is up for a Grammy in the Best Instrumental Jazz Album category this year, tackles a wide range of issues and experiences related to contemporary injustice.

“See Me As I Am” was inspired in part by an instance when a neighbor accused Blanchard’s son of breaking into her house and called 911.

“My son is in class, and seven patrol cars pull up,” he recalls. “And they emptied the building and handcuffed my son and ‘perp-walked’ him out the building in front of the entire student body… That’s where ‘See Me As I Am’ comes from, because people don’t see me for who I am.”

Another facet of the song deals with Blanchard’s experiences talking with people whose assumptions about him change over the course of the conversation.

“Soldiers,” meanwhile, grew out of criticisms that Barack Obama levies his presidential power in the vein of a social worker.

“To me, social workers are selfless in their approach to how they’re serving their communities. So for me in a sense, they are the true soldiers of, well, an urban kind of struggle,” he says. “Trying to help people regain some dignity in their lives and help people push forward.”

Another tune, “Cosmic Warrior,” addresses a more spiritual aspect of the problems our country is facing.

“For me, with all the absurdity of all that’s going on, and no end of it in sight, it seems as though we may need some divine intervention, you know, to kind of help us see the error of our ways, so to speak,” Blanchard says.

It’s not the first time Blanchard has delved into politics and social injustice through music. In 2006, he responded to the aftermath of the floods that devastated his city after Hurricane Katrina by composing the score for Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke” and the album, “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” which marked his fifth Grammy win.

He says the experiences of writing that music and “Breathless” were similar.

“When I wrote, ‘When the Levees Broke,’ it wasn’t about me, it was just about the pain and suffering, the hopelessness that people were feeling throughout that entire event. That created the sounds [and] created the melodies, really,” he explains.

“When I kept trying to write something for Katrina, I came up with the worst stuff on the planet. And when I just kind of let go, then all these other things started to come to me. The same thing happened with ‘Breathless.’”

He initially imagined ‘Breathless’ as an album that might inspire young musicians interested in instrumental music in general as opposed jazz, in the traditional sense.

“But while we were creating this music, a lot was happening and all of these stories were unfolding,” he says. “It just kind of snowballed into what it is now.”

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