Fest Focus: Cajun Punk Meets Irish

21 04 2016


Offbeat, Jazz Fest Bible 2016

By the time London’s epochal Irish folk-punk band the Pogues recorded “Dirty Old Town” in the mid-’80s, it was already a folk standard. But the tune’s bleak beauty and industrial imagery fit so well with the Pogues’ ethos that when they recast the song through their own lens, spiking it with Shane MacGowan’s fuck-all growls and Spider Stacy’s wistful tin whistle, it became something new.

One night last summer, Stacy played the song with the Cajun rock outfit Lost Bayou Ramblers and “Dirty Old Town” transformed again.

This time, the Ramblers’ Louis Michot sang a plaintive-voiced Cajun French version of a verse that hushed the otherwise rowdy, sing-along prone crowd. His brother, Andre, added a Cajun accordion to the mix, while Louis’ fiddle buoyed Stacy’s whistle melody on the instrumental breaks. Though they could have performed a straightforward cover of the song, the tweaks and additions yielded an adaptation with a distinct character of its own.

“There’s almost like a third force emerging,” Stacy says of his ongoing collaboration with the Ramblers. “Something kind of born of both but independent.”

Since that first show at One Eyed Jack’s, the Acadiana-based Ramblers and Stacy, who moved to New Orleans in 2010, have expanded their reimagined Pogues repertoire and hit the road as Poguetry in Motion (the name of a 1986 Pogues EP). They’ve also started delving into Cajun music, which Stacy’s been dutifully collecting on vinyl. Drawn to the genre’s “immense soulfulness,” he said in March that they were in the midst of hammering out a tin whistle–friendly version of the deep cut, “Si J’aurai des Ailes,” along with a few others.

For their April 28 Jazz Fest set, the Ramblers (Louis and Andre Michot plus drummer Eric Heigle, guitarist Johnny Campos and bassist Bryan Webre) plan to feature a mix of Poguetry and original Ramblers music with Stacy as one of multiple special guests. Rickie Lee Jones, another rock icon who discovered the band’s unique sound after moving to New Orleans, will sit in as well.

“You get such a different result when you mix different styles and different performers together,” says Michot. “To me, that’s the goal of every artist’s journey, to make something new.”

Michot and his brother Andre formed the Ramblers in 1999, combining the aesthetic of traditional Cajun music they’d grown up playing in their father and uncle’s family band with concepts drawn from their taste for rock. That marriage of styles cast them into a lineage known as rogue or folk punk, which the Pogues originated in London.

The Violent Femmes are said to have initiated a proliferation of similar music in the U.S. around that time; the Femmes’ guitarist, singer and violin player Gordon Gano, has also collaborated with the Ramblers in recent years.

“When people started saying we sound like a Cajun version of the Pogues, I started checking [them],” says Michot.

“People put that same title on us, Cajun punk and Irish punk, but really it’s from the source of loving really intense rhythm and putting a lot of energy onstage, which is not typical for a Cajun show or Irish show. To be playing with Spider now is like bringing it all together.”

Stacy initially contacted the Ramblers after seeing them perform live in 2011. At the show, he recalls hearing what he describes as a “wild, euphoric exaltation” that was similar to the Pogues’ spirit.

“It just kind of hits you right in the heart and the gut. It just lifts you up,” he says.

With the Pogues on a potentially permanent hiatus, Stacy proposed to Michot that they try collaborating. Michot consented, leaving room in the band’s schedule to continue performing their own music, as well. Once they began working together, a chemistry emerged on both musical and personal levels.

“It’s become very familiar, very quick,” says Michot, adding that the collaboration has felt “organic” from the beginning.

In some ways, the common denominator between the Ramblers’ and Pogues’ music extends beyond their shared energy. Historically, regional folk music has played a role in unifying Acadians who fled Canada for Louisiana in the 1700s as well as the people of Ireland.

“Both cultures have been under threat from painful outside forces,” Stacy says, “and music has been an extraordinarily strong bulwark in defending that culture or maintaining that culture’s integrity.”

That doesn’t mean learning one another’s music has been easy. With each new Pogues tune Stacy brings the band, he and the Michot brothers tend to break down the melody so they can understand it on a fiddle, accordion and whistle level before building it back up to a larger rock sound.

Michot says he appreciates that approach because Cajun music also has a “core, intricate melody” that has to be mastered for the song to have the desired effect.

Stacy, meanwhile, admits he’s “still trying to get my head around some of these fiendishly complex Cajun tunes.” A few of the melodies are complex to begin with, he says, while others are more challenging because the Ramblers are so prone to experimentation that “things kind of appear from nowhere when you’re not expecting them.”

On the other hand, that’s the kind of open-mindedness that gave rise to Poguetry in Motion in the first place.

Fest Focus: Midnite Disturbers

19 04 2016


Offbeat Jazz Fest Bible 2016

For a city that care allegedly forgot, New Orleans has a funny way of achieving the impossible when it comes to music. Case in point: the Midnite Disturbers, a super-group comprised of brass players and bandleaders whose combined musical responsibilities during Jazz Fest should make it logistically unfeasible for them to share a stage.

Yet for the past nine years, drummers Stanton Moore and Kevin O’Day and Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman have corralled a swarm of the city’s top horn players onto the Jazz & Heritage Stage for 75 minutes of funk-soaked parade melodies, outlandish vamps and second line rhythms from drummers who seem to innately understand one another’s sense of groove.

The band started as a “what if” scenario, dreamed up while O’Day was staying with Moore after the storm. They envisioned an expanded brass band dream team of sorts. And in spite of their ambitious desire to pull talent from most of the busiest acts in town—including the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, Galactic, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and Bonerama—they managed to enlist a serious New Orleans horn juggernaut. Regular performers in the band include Roger Lewis and Skerik on saxophones, Big Sam Williams, Mark Mullins and Corey Henry on trombones, James Andrews and Shamarr Allen on trumpets and Kirk Joseph, Phil Frazier and Matt Perrine on tubas, plus Ellman, with O’Day, Moore and Mike Dillon handling drums and percussion.

The Disturbers tend to perform New Orleans standards from the brass repertoire (it’s easy to play a Rebirth or Lil’ Rascals song when original members of those bands are onstage, Ellman points out), plus a handful of tunes by Moore and his other cohorts.

“It’s just nice to get what you want,” says O’Day, a veteran of the local funk and jazz scenes whose collaborations with Iris May Tango, Royal Fingerbowl and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars helped lay the groundwork for his own ensembles, such as the funk-meets-avant-garde jazz blend, Live Animals.

“We wanted to have a band that was really special that would happen just once a year.”

Despite the lineup’s marquee names, the Midnite Disturbers have managed to maintain the kind of raw, stripped-down sound and feel that gives parading brass bands so much of their power in the streets.

Unlike other all-star lineups that pop up around Jazz Fest time, the Disturbers usually hit the stage without elements like pomp-fueled intros that might detract from the music. Their big, brash sound consistently inspires listeners to throng the mucky patch of ground before the stage, keeping them rapt and dancing—even in the driving rain that threatened to end the Disturbers’ set a few years back.

O’Day and Moore initially approached the drum format as a typical New Orleans brass band would, with O’Day handling the bass drum and Moore on snare.

“It’s been more fun lately to have a drum setup and then a whole percussion setup so we can switch back and forth,” O’Day says.

As they trade on and off between kit and percussion, the drummers feed off of one another’s fire, matching licks and sparking elaborate improvisations within the rhythm. To Ellman’s ear, O’Day’s hip-hop feel shines through, contrasting with Moore’s street-ready marching band sensibility. Dillon, meanwhile, adds to the often borderline–frenetic energy, reined in by the trio’s impeccable control.

It also helps that the players feel trust is built into the collaboration.

“I always feel like I’m just along for the ride and I’m just enjoying it, like, ‘Wow, I cannot believe this trombone section of Big Sam, Mark Mullins, Corey Henry, are all up here trading,” says Ellman. “And once we pick the songs, it always just kind of takes off and works. With those kinds of musicians onstage you just don’t have to worry about it.”

While some aspects of the Disturbers’ sound revolve around an organic parade-band feel, there’s also a certain energy that comes from putting that many virtuosos onstage together.

“It’s always hard to be the next soloist because it’s a whole band of amazing soloists,” says Ellman, joking (maybe) that he takes the first solo on most tunes because “there’s nobody I want to follow.”

On the other hand, Ellman, who cut his teeth playing second lines with Corey Henry’s Lil’ Rascals brass band starting in 1989, doesn’t mind making room for the occasional skilled, if less experienced player in the horn section.

He remembers subbing in a pair of visiting relatives who happened to be horn players one year when Skerik couldn’t make the gig. One of them ended up moving to New Orleans, enrolling in Loyola and helping to start the band Naughty Professor. But he was green at the time.

“For my cousins it was like throwing them in the fire,” Ellman says, laughing. “Welcome to New Orleans! Now stand next to Roger Lewis and take a solo.”

Fest Focus: Snarky Puppy

19 04 2016


Offbeat Jazz Fest Bible 2016

“You can try it here but you’re crazy and it’s not gonna work.”

That’s the reaction bassist Michael League, leader of the fusion-minded instrumental collective Snarky Puppy, remembers getting when he first proposed recording an album and concert DVD before a live studio audience at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, in 2009. League was told there was “no way the studio could handle” the number of inputs they’d need to record audio and video for nearly 20 musicians while simultaneously plugging 30 audience members into the mix so they could listen, too.

The band went through with it anyway, picking up friends in Lafayette and driving them in the school bus that served as their tour bus to Maurice, where a Cajun chef pal was preparing dinner for the whole group.

The cozy DIY vibe frayed a bit when it came time to record.

“Equipment was smoking in between songs, shit was getting ready to catch on fire,” League recalled with a laugh during a recent phone interview. ”Everything was falling apart. It’s a miracle that it worked.”

Miracle or not, that kind of tenacity and openness to creative risks has informed Snarky Puppy’s approach since League formed the band with fellow music students at the University of North Texas in 2004. Their sound veers between jazz and funk, stripped-down rock, electronics- steeped neo-soul and R&B and West African grooves. It’s all delivered with a technical precision and playful showmanship that belies the difficulty of blending so many styles.

League, a prolific producer who also runs his own label, GroundUP, writes and arranges most of the music—which in this group can mean charts for two dozen instruments.

Then there are the guests: The more challenging and seemingly incongruous, the better—and in some cases, the more celebrated. Their collaboration with soul singer Lalah Hathaway on 2013’s Family Dinner—Volume 1 earned them a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Their work with the Dutch symphony orchestra Metropole Orkest, on 2015’s Sylva, won them a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.

When they recorded Family Dinner—Volume 2 at New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios during Mardi Gras last year, their roster included titans like David Crosby and the Afro-pop singer Salif Keita, plus an expanded band featuring Terence Blanchard, Brian Coogan, Mike Dillon and the Soul Rebels’ Ed Lee, among other New Orleans–based artists.

For those special charity-focused projects, League arranged original compositions by each guest that, in his words, “flipped [the song] on its head.”

“The idea is to re-imagine these songs in a way that brings out the essence of the artist but also reflects the sound of Snarky Puppy,” he explained.

To that end, Crosby’s “Somebody Home,” a raw and beautiful “apology from all men to all women,” builds to a slow burn as spare keyboards and hushed percussive motifs play off Crosby’s voice and guitar, adding a quiet strength to match the song’s message.

The guest-packed projects have also helped usher in numerous number one chart placements, sold-out shows and a stream of love- them-or-hate-them critiques in the press (detractors have argued they lack a cohesive voice or don’t live up to the fusion standard set by the Weather Report).

League admits the sudden uptick in exposure feels strange after he and his colleagues spent years quietly doing their thing without making much industry noise. That wariness may have contributed to his decision to do an about-face on their forthcoming album, a funk and Afrobeat–laced exploration of layered grooves with fewer virtuosic solos and more understated warmth than some of their other recent material.

“We hadn’t made a studio record since 2009, so going into a studio with no cameras, no audience, no live pressure or logistical stress, to just go and make a record and make sure everything’s right … we don’t get the luxury of doing that when we record live,” League said, adding that the disc reflects “a return … to who we really are.”

“It was a bonding thing for the guys too, to be together and be creative,” he continued, his voice elevating over a crackled din of flight announcements at a Florida airport.

Like other elements of their pre-hit days, Snarky Puppy’s school bus / tour van has been retired.

Fresh off a trip to Los Angeles to accept their latest Grammy, League had just finished mixing a new album for David Crosby, one of 16 releases his label expects to drop this year. He noted that his bandmates are prolific creators of new music, too. Scanning the laps of the musicians who flanked him as we spoke, he said one was working on a solo album and another was learning new music for another gig.

“This generation of musicians was brought up basically being told that it’s harder now than ever to survive as a creative musician, which I think is true. So we were all kind of indoctrinated with this fatalistic mentality,” League explained.

“But the guys that are in my band were like, ‘Fuck it,’” he said with an audible note of pride. “I mean, if we’re gonna starve to death anyway, we might as well do it doing something we love.”


Backtalk: Regina Carter

5 04 2016
Regina Carter

Regina Carter

OFFBEAT, FEB. 25, 2016:

More than a decade ago, jazz violinist Regina Carter became the first non-classical musician to play Niccolo Paganini’s highly guarded, handcrafted Guarneri violin, an instrument that dates back to 1743 and is counted among the most precious items in classical music history.

She used it to record 2003’s Paganini: After a Dream, an homage to the musician who first owned it that incorporated bop and Latin-inspired arrangements reflecting the violin’s 260-year-old history.

A few years after the album’s release, Carter was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship—or “Genius Grant”—and decided to use the money to fund a closer look at her own history.

Digging into the musical undercurrents in her family’s heritage, Carter has spent the past few years connecting the dots between herself and her mother (I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey), her ancestors (Reverse Thread) and most recently, her grandfather, whose experience as a coal miner in Alabama inspired her 2014 release, Southern Comfort, which she brings to the CAC on March 11.

Carter’s vision for the album began focused on coal mining songs, she says, but soon expanded to cover the blues, gospel, old-world country and folk music as she delved further into her research of the period during which her grandfather lived and the regions that surrounded his native Alabama. Studying field recordings from the Library of Congress, as well as whatever oral histories she could piece together from speaking to distant relatives and others, she developed a list of songs that she used as jumping off points for new arrangements.

Like much of her work, the results are a seamless mix of multiple genres that lead with her lush, soulful tone and creative approach to arranging and improvising.

In this interview, the violinist reflects on her research process, the emotional response she had to the music she discovered and more.

What got you interested in this specific aspect of your family’s past? Did your grandfather share the music he’d heard when he was coal mining with you when you were a little girl?

My grandfather died before I was even born so it made this process even more difficult. My whole life I’ve been very curious about my past, my family—my ancestors. So when I received the MacArthur award I decided to take some time and do some research. I joined ancestry.com and did the whole DNA test and the first record, Reverse Thread, was sort of about my findings.
The results came back 70 percent West African, I think 15 percent Finnish and some other sprinklings here and there. So Reverse Thread was just kind of a mixture reflecting that.

And then I decided to just really concentrate on my father’s side of the family. I didn’t know anything about my grandfather. And my only memories [of him] were from childhood, spending summers with my grandmother and a lot of my aunts and uncles down in Alabama in their home. I found it to be pretty difficult to get information about him, but I knew when he was born and I knew he was a coal miner. So I just started listening to the music and doing research as to what was happening historically during that time period. And the field recordings I found were so beautiful, amazing, raw, intriguing that I decided to try to piece a story together, to piece my family together, through music.

Was it difficult to get people in your family or otherwise to open up about the more challenging aspects of that period in American history?

Most of that information I got from reading historical books and knowing what was going on as far as being an African-American coal miner, being a coal miner period. The life that they were living back then. Because I wasn’t really getting information from my own family. No one seemed to recall or remember him. That made me more intrigued, because I thought, ‘Why don’t you want to remember him?’ I finally found the youngest family member who gave me some information. But most of that was coming from books. And people would say, ‘Oh, check out this book or this article,’ people that had maybe grandfathers that were born around the same time that were coal miners in the Appalachia region. So it came from just kind of sharing information with different kinds of people and knowing what life was like based on my findings.

What keeps you coming back to this idea of looking to your heritage for musical inspiration? Can you describe the satisfaction it brings you?

For me, it’s like I know that I belong to something. It’s like your faith if someone has a faith. But with faith it’s a blind faith depending on what you believe in. This helped me to say, ‘Who am I? Why do I play music? Why do I like the things I like? Why is my personality like this?’ And it’s like oh… My grandmother played piano and my great uncle played banjo, maybe that’s where I got it from. Or this person has this personality trait and I have it, or this person went through this and they were strong and if they could get through that then it helps me when I’m crying about something or thinking this is too difficult. It’s not to negate my feelings, it’s just to remember that people have gone through much more just to have what I have. That gives me the extra push to get up and keep moving.

What’s something you found that helped you connect yourself to older family members?

Music, that’s the biggest thing that I got directly from my mother’s mother and an uncle on my father’s side. And then just other personality traits I could see throughout my family. So it’s just kind of interesting, like sometimes my mother would say, ‘Oh, you’re just like your father.’ [laughs] And you always think they’re just saying that but it’s like yeah, she’s right. Or learning about my grandfather it’s like, ‘OK, we got that characteristic out of his personality traits.’

Another thing was they were hired workers. My grandparents have 14 children and my dad was the oldest. Seeing how their children had a very strong work ethic and left home and most of them moved up to Detroit and got odd jobs and how they really helped each other, it was a very close family bond. They all believed in working hard. Whatever it was you have to work hard and succeed and go forward and they passed that on generation after generation.

And on my mother’s side, my grandmother was the first person in their family to go to college and graduate. She graduated in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy so I have that degree on my wall. So that helps—all of those little things—looking at photographs, listening to this music. With the field recordings even though I know it’s not directly of them, the recordings are from people that lived during that time. It’s a connection for me and a source of strength.

Was there anything you learned about the music, whether it was song form or instrumental technique or something else, that surprised you when you studied the field recordings?

When I listened to the field recordings I didn’t go in with any preconceived ideas or theoretical or analytic point, I just listened for the sake of listening. I was just trying to capture that time period, trying to make that connection because the music was my way of connecting to the past. And just listening and having a gut, natural reaction and choosing the songs that I chose off of that reaction. The question I asked myself was just: Did I have some kind of emotional reaction to it?

What choices did you make with the arrangements when it came to staying true to the period in which the originals were written?

Because we were reimagining these tunes, if you will, we couldn’t sound like that time period because we aren’t of that [period]. And I didn’t want to do that and I knew people were going to hear this on the radio so it was my way of presenting the songs in a manner that people would maybe listen to them and be interested in hearing the original.
At concerts I pick maybe two or three of the songs and play a snippet of the original. And then play the arrangement we came up with.

It was a long process because we’d come up with an idea and play through it and some of the tunes just didn’t work for me with my instrument and then some, we’d play through them and then I’d listen back and I’d say, ‘Okay this works, this doesn’t work, let’s try this.’ It was really just playing and seeing how does this feel and hoping the whole process would be a natural flow.

How did you approach your instrument differently for this project? Were there certain cases where you tried to capture the feeling of a particular character from the past?

There are certain tunes that I tried to do that with, like “Miner’s Child.” But that in itself is a whole technique. A group that does that so well is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but they really studied that, so it’s not something I can just mimic. With some of the tunes, I made just a nod to that time period but [was] not really trying to present that sound.

What were the biggest challenges in maintaining the historic roots of a song while updating it in a way that made sense for you?

I think trying to really respect the music because the melodies are so simple and sometimes things that are the most simple are the most difficult. So [I was] trying to really highlight or hold onto the beauty and rawness that I heard in those tracks but at the same time allow our own voice to come through. It’s a balancing act.

What are you working on next?

I’m starting on the next project which is a tribute to Ella [Fitzgerald] and taking some tunes that Ella recorded that weren’t so popular and again, trying to present them not just in a straightforward [way], but trying to do something creative with that process so that I have a voice within that as well and am not just rerecording a tune. Just like Southern Comfort and Reverse Thread, it’s a long, kind of drawn-out process with me, but I enjoy it. It’s just hard to get started because I know it’s going to take a minute and sometimes I have no patience.

You started out with a list of about 50 songs you’d found in your research that you thought could work for this project. What made the tunes that landed on that list stand out for you?

It really all is a very organic process for me, so it’s all based on a feeling. I don’t do anything from a technical standpoint. If it strikes me on some kind of emotional level then I would say, ‘Hey, let me try this.’ It was based on an immediate reaction I would have and then by myself start to mess around with it, then I would know this will work or won’t. And then also getting together with some of the other musicians and playing, then that would also let us know whether it would work or not.

Were there any songs that you knew immediately would be perfect for this project?

Yes. “I’m Going Home On the Mornin’ Train” and “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy.” When I heard that it was like a distant memory of hearing my mother rocking me on her lap, singing or humming something like that. And when we play it, so many people, whether they’re from the United States or not, feel the same way. I played a gig once and some people were in town from Finland and they were like, ‘We sing that song only we sing it like this.’ So it seemed like it was a universal piece.

Review: Magnetic Ear, Live at Vaughan’s

1 04 2016


Offbeat, March 2016

A decade ago, Martin Krusche was using his pocket brass band Magnetic Ear as a small-combo platform for his complex, brass-based jazz compositions and electric tenor sax experiments. In recent years, the ensemble has expanded to a more traditional brass band lineup, a change that’s moved their sound squarely into cerebral dance-floor material.

Recorded in October 2015, Live at Vaughan’s sees the current lineup—which features Krusche’s tenor and soprano saxes alongside Dan Oestreicher on baritone sax, Wes Anderson and Jon Ramm-Gramenz on trombone, Steven Glenn on sousaphone and Paul Thibodeaux on drums—full of fire and playfulness.

And they need those ingredients in large doses to pull off shifts from Cuban motifs (“587 Miles”) to Balkan brass jams (“Zivilkonttrolle”) to Nirvana and Prince covers as seamlessly as they do.

The loose vibe associated with contemporary parading New Orleans brass bands shines through on tracks like “Uncle Roger,” their funk-laced tribute to the Dirty Dozen’s Roger Lewis. But more often than not, it gets juxtaposed against something like the mid-song breakdown on “Virgin Murder” where the saxophones veer off from their original, tight and clean motif to something skittering and woozy that flies around driving sousaphone blasts.

The horns take unexpected routes in and out of the Latin theme on “Samba 7 4 Now,” too; although Thibodeaux’s dynamic soloing on that track makes it tough to focus elsewhere.

There’s a thrill that comes with pushing the envelope as far as possible without compromising the groove. This album nails it.

Review: Magnetic Ear, Live at Vaughan’s

31 03 2016

magnetic-ear-albumOFFBEAT, MARCH 31, 2016:

A decade ago, Martin Krusche was using his pocket brass band Magnetic Ear as a small-combo platform for his complex, brass-based jazz compositions and electric tenor sax experiments. In recent years, the ensemble has expanded to a more traditional brass band lineup, a change that’s moved their sound squarely into cerebral dance-floor material.

Recorded in October 2015, Live at Vaughan’s sees the current lineup—which features Krusche’s tenor and soprano saxes alongside Dan Oestreicher on baritone sax, Wes Anderson and Jon Ramm-Gramenz on trombone, Steven Glenn on sousaphone and Paul Thibodeaux on drums—full of fire and playfulness.

And they need those ingredients in large doses to pull off shifts from Cuban motifs (“587 Miles”) to Balkan brass jams (“Zivilkonttrolle”) to Nirvana and Prince covers as seamlessly as they do.

The loose vibe associated with contemporary parading New Orleans brass bands shines through on tracks like “Uncle Roger,” their funk-laced tribute to the Dirty Dozen’s Roger Lewis. But more often than not, it gets juxtaposed against something like the mid-song breakdown on “Virgin Murder” where the saxophones veer off from their original, tight and clean motif to something skittering and woozy that flies around driving sousaphone blasts.

The horns take unexpected routes in and out of the Latin theme on “Samba 7 4 Now,” too; although Thibodeaux’s dynamic soloing on that track makes it tough to focus elsewhere.

There’s a thrill that comes with pushing the envelope as far as possible without compromising the groove. This album nails it.

Terence Blanchard on ‘Breathless’

12 02 2016


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.”