His latest album, Breathless, takes Eric Garner's last words as a musical call to action, giving Blanchard a chance to get loud and aggressive over the heavy grooves of his new quintet, the E-Collective. A far cry from Blanchard's 2001 album of romantic ballads, Let's Get Lost, or much of his more gentle jazz output, the music of Breathlesscan feel weighty and claustrophobic, as uncomfortable and urgent as the state of American society he's exploring.
I caught Blanchard before his rehearsal for an all-star performance at the White House—a "smorgasbord" of jazz greats, he called it. He talked about the meaning of groove, police violence, and community building through music.
INDY:The E-Collective's music is often heavier than the jazz for which you're known. How did this band take shape?
It was supposed to be a group that we had put together to have fun playing some groove-based music. It was initially conceived with the drummer Oscar Seaton and myself years ago when we were doing a film session for Spike Lee's Inside Man. We were having a lot of fun, and we kept saying, "Man, we should put together a group." It took us eight years. Once we got to it, we were in Europe, and we noticed that there was a lot of stuff going on back in the States—a lot of crazy stories about violence with African-American youth and law enforcement. We took note, and all of the meanings of the songs started to change. That became the basis of the album.
How does groove relate to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and police brutality at large? Does it allow you to tackle those topics in a way that jazz-based music didn't?
The two things kind of came together at the same time. We just so happened to be working on that music when all of those events were happening. Even if I had a jazz band, I probably would have done the same thing. But while we were doing this groove-based music, along with trying to inspire some young kids who want to play music but don't necessarily want to play jazz, we wanted to send a message about how we felt.
You've been playing this music for a few years now. Have the statements you're trying to make—and your relationship to those statements—changed?
It hasn't changed, because we haven't seen major changes in our country. We haven't seen major changes in the attitudes of law enforcement toward ordinary citizens. When those things change, when people feel the change, all of that music will be something that was a reflection of a point in time of our history. But until then, it's a reflection of what's going on now. It's really unfortunate because, with all of the things that are going on and the amount of attention that it's been getting, you would think that things would change immediately. That tells you how entrenched these attitude systems are.
Does this groove-based structure change the way you think about soloing or composition?
Stylistically, there are things that happen that you're not even conscious of that have to do with rhythm and harmony. For me, groove is groove, no matter whether it's swing or jazz. I'm always trying to find my space, where I fit. It doesn't matter what kind of music I'm playing—Latin music, jazz, groove-based music, it's all the same. It's trying to find that moment in time where what it is you're trying to say can stick with what's going on underneath you.
Has this approach opened up any different audiences for you?
Definitely. You see a lot of different people, younger people coming to the shows. At the end of the show we just played in New Orleans, at Jazz Fest, we played this tune "Cosmic Warrior." A ton of kids stormed the stage and started bobbing their heads; that's never happened before at a jazz show.
Do you see this as a way of community building?
Part of what we're trying to do is reach some other kids, to let them know if they want to play an instrument there's a way to do it at a high level that can be very rewarding. It's all about trying to bring people together, trying to show people other options.
We're still figuring it out yet. We don't have a total definition of what it is that we're doing. We're trying new things all the time. I just brought in a new tune for the band that's in 7/4 but really funky. And then we actually just started playing a ballad that I had written for my jazz band, but it works with this band extremely well.
Sometimes, when people come and see this band, especially when they see us on a big stage, they're shocked at how the band can have a dramatic presence, because they're thinking we're just a jazz quintet. But this band is something totally different.