Terence Blanchard has one of the great charged tones in modern jazz. His protean trumpet can come off sleek or soulful, invigorated or exasperated, often all those at once. Blanchard's horn is listenable but never easy, seemingly living in a higher, more pitched emotional register. It's no wonder that he's become a go-to film score composer. The man can make a mood.
All of which explains how that horn keeps its power when it's not playing jazz. On Blanchard's new album, Breathless, he's assembled a muscular quintet, the E-Collective, and hung a hard left into a bracing mix of rock, electronica and funk. "Compared to What" makes a fitting and blistering opener, Blanchard's trumpet blaring like a clarion over Oscar Seaton's tough drums and Fabian Almazan's synth power surges. On "Confident Selflessness," Donald Ramsey's ferocious funk bass sets the pace, daring the jazz lines to keep up — and they do, escorted out of the comfort zone by Charles Altura's scalding guitar.
It turns out Blanchard had been mulling this stylistic shift for years.
"I've been listening to electronic music since I was a kid," he says. "We initially came up with that concept for the band about eight years ago. [Seaton] and myself were working on a film, Talk to Me, and we just had a lot of fun playing some groove-based music. We wanted to inspire some young kid playing electronic music ... to do it on a higher level."
The best reminder that a jazz squad is at the helm comes in the complexity of these tracks, which traffic in the deft interplays and dense chording of avant-garde jazz, even when the riffs go full metal.
Recent events catalyzed Blanchard's move. The title Breathless refers to Eric Garner, the New York man who died in a police chokehold. "It seemed like incident after incident," Blanchard says. "It just became apparent that the music had to take a shift." The spoken-word title track captures the mood, blending piquant trumpet with rich piano and a sinuous bass and drum groove, exiting on a breathy whisper: "We ... can't ... breathe." The tension is stunning and shapeshifting — it's ethereal if you want to hear that, funky if you want to hear that, urgent in message no matter what you want. "Cosmic Warrior" is a display of raw power. Skipping rock and heading straight to heavy metal, Blanchard's trumpet signs on with towering riffs and a wall of guitar distortion. "That's the outcry," Blanchard says. "'Cosmic Warrior' is about the outrage that we feel in our society, and us not being able to do anything about it." There are times only a blown-out amplifier will suffice.
"This music is stuff that I've been into since I got into music," Blanchard says. "It's been a part of my soul and a part of my personality. ... I just thought, 'Now is the time to allow that other side of my personality to express itself musically.'" He intends to continue the exploration. "[The record] is really just a small snippet of who we are musically. It's kind of interesting, because we're still saying we don't know what the sound of this band is. We're still trying to learn and watch it unfold."