Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Terence Blanchard's E-Collective is a stretch that may be good for the protest side of jazz

The quintet that trumpeter Terence Blanchard now leads played the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night, and it took some getting used to for fans most familiar with Blanchard's lyrical tendency as displayed in acoustic settings.

Jazz prides itself on never standing still, so I suppose my somewhat tepid response to the E-Collective (Blanchard, occasionally doubling on keyboard, plus guitar, electric bass, keyboards, and drums) can be chalked up to a bit of moldy-figgery.

Terence Blanchard E-Collective plays music from "Breathless."
I missed the songful Blanchard, master of smooth elisions through half-valving and sudden shadings of tone. He was always a trumpeter who could reach in a controlled manner for the upper reaches of pitch and volume, never sounding forced, and linking that sound to his gorgeous middle and lower registers.

For his first set at the Kitchen, Blanchard and his mates forged an uninterrupted set of just over an hour. I was reminded of a Miles Davis set I heard in Ann Arbor in the modern pioneer's initial electric era, when aggressiveness in thick textures was essential to a vibe that he had done so much to create.

Blanchard spoke only at the end, announcing that the music had come from "Breathless," the E-Collective's new CD, which memorializes in protest recent police-action killings of black men, especially the death by chokehold last summer of Eric Garner, whose last words were a repeated "I can't breathe."

Social consciousness, whatever the values it may uphold, can't provide sufficient justification for music, though it may stir the pot of creativity like nothing else from time to time. That said, this band is undeniably simpatico internally; but I'm not sure the topical side of Blanchard brings out his best music. Enthusiastic reception of his "A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina"  no doubt encouraged him to press his muse into service further as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered steam. "Breathless" is the result.

Blanchard has been associated with the personnel of E-Collective for some time, with the apparent exception of young guitarist Charles Altura. The trumpeter went to school in his hometown of New Orleans with bassist Donald Ramsey, for example, and has used Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan for at least a half-decade. Drummer Oscar Seaton, sporting R&B and fusion credentials to burn,  is a colleague with years of Blanchard experience as well.

To me, plugged-in bands often sound infatuated with the ability to provide thick tapestries of sound. Individual quirkiness and personal style are flattened out for the sake of the ensemble. Phrasing often seems accidental. Crafting a solo is a matter of layering in a timbre that can be expanded or withdrawn at will.

Behind it all is a driving, essentially unvarying drum pattern. Tuesday night Seaton's pulse was steady but overwhelming; his playing with this band in a few YouTube excerpts I heard before the gig was more intricate and less explosive.  At the Jazz Kitchen, the bass drum was too loud, particularly at first, and throughout the set, pistol-shot snare-drum backbeats became wearying.

Blanchard the composer is still flexible enough — thanks in part to his extensive film-scoring experience —that the long set didn't lack variety. Angry slow blues themes were relieved by meditative episodes, and a very fast section featured a catchy set of figures for trumpet and guitar in unison. Almazan often specialized in the reflective end of the spectrum; Altura, in the frenetic — though his stage manner is refreshingly poker-faced, without the wincing and grimacing stereotypical of guitarists.

"Breathless" deserves a hearing, but one can only hope that Blanchard's refusal to stay in one place musically for long will allow him to play to his strengths once again. E-Collective has more limits than may seem apparent in the short term, when the heat of protest scorches just about everyone.