Grammy-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard was considered one of the pillars of the straight-ahead jazz resurgence of the 1980s. The New Orleans native played with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers before leading his own hard bop ensembles, recording dozens of albums and writing more than 50 movie scores.
Blanchard surprised fans last year, though, when he and his E-Collective band began playing a more groove-oriented kind of music, with R&B vocals from PJ Morton of Maroon 5 and spoken word from Cornel West and Blanchard’s son, T. Oliver Blanchard Jr. (a.k.a. JRei Oliver).
Blanchard, 54, and his band perform Oct. 22 at the Kennedy Center, where he is an artist in residence. (His jazz opera “Champion” will be performed by the Washington National Opera in the spring.)
We spoke to Blanchard recently from his home in New Orleans about the socially charged content of the album, his future work in that vein, as well as the music’s sometimes disarming groove.
Q: What led you to form E-Collective?
A: It was really an idea I had with the drummer Oscar Seaton almost 10 years ago now. We talked about doing a kind of groove-based thing to try and help inspire some young kids who wanted to play instruments but didn’t necessarily want to play jazz. But as we got into it, man, it just turned into a thing that we really became interested in because of the musicians we had in the band. It’s just something that’s growing into something we’re really excited about doing.
Q: Is a groove-based thing something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
A: Oh, yeah, I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music. As a matter of fact, I played in some R&B bands as a keyboard player when I was a kid. I’ve always been a fan of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, all those groups. So it’s always been something I’ve had on the back burner. It’s just something people didn’t associate me with. But that’s funny, because you can never display the vast amount of music that you listen to, that you’re interested in, through your career. But this band has kind of given me an opportunity to do something that’s slightly different, and we’re having fun with it.
Q: Are you seeing different audiences as a result?
A: We’re starting to. When we first did it . . . we didn’t make a big announcement about it. So there were a lot of people who were fans of mine showing up . . . expecting the jazz quintet. We used to make jokes about it. You could tell by the first song, everybody was like, “Well, what is this?” By the second song, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” By the third song, they’re all out on their feet, so it’s all good.
Q: You’ve done politically charged work before — “The Malcolm X Jazz Suite” and “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).” But “Breathless” really seemed to make an impact when it came out.
A: We were surprised, because it had a very strong impact on the community. It had a strong impact on young musicians, for musical reasons, which is one reason we did it. But the social justice piece is something I hadn’t anticipated to the level of which it was received. It’s been interesting to see, because I always felt like I was socially conscious, but for some reason this particular CD really took off into this realm.
And we’re still going to go down that road. The next album that we’re talking about doing, if we record live, we’re going to try and go to some cities where we’ve had some police shootings and get involved in the community and cause some attention and create some conversations around the music in January. I’m writing music for that as we speak.
Q: Did you have in mind the history of social commentary in jazz from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to John Coltrane’s “Alabama” when you were putting it together?
A: Of course, man. I played “Alabama” and recorded it when I was a young musician. I did some stuff based on these issues a lot throughout my career — written music about South Africa and what was going on there. . . . The thing about it for me is that I’m just gratified that it helps to create more conversion around these issues. We’re living in a time now that’s really strange, dude. It’s really strange. We have a lot of serious issues coming our way and you get sidetracked by minuscule stuff. You get sidetracked by Donald Trump talking about grabbing p---y on a bus. You get sidetracked about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. And you go crazy over these issues, but these are just symptoms of bigger issues.
And we still avoid the bigger issues. That’s why I feel like we’re at a crossroads in this country, because you have a groundswell of people who are just tired of seeing that. Now with the technology, we have a plethora of information coming our way on a daily basis about these things, and it’s raising people’s consciousness. It’s getting people to the point where they’re smart enough to know they don’t want to hear the rhetoric.
One of the things that disappointed me about the [latest presidential] debate, for example, is that nobody talked about Haiti. You guys call yourselves public servants and yet nobody’s talking about that. It’s frustrating to witness. Because you sit there and you say, “Either these guys are not into it or they think that we’re not as smart as we are to see through the rhetoric.”
So part of what we did with “Breathless,” and part of what we’re going to try to do with the next album, is to try to continue the conversation, so at the same time you have fun playing the music, we’re expanding our consciousness.
Q: What was it like when you were playing “Breathless” this summer near where the choking of Eric Garner happened in Staten Island?
A: Surprisingly powerful. I wasn’t expecting it. It was like, I saw it on the calendar, but it didn’t register where I was playing and what I was playing until I got there. . . . I met Eric Garner’s family after the show, and to see all the attentive faces that were there, it was a really powerful thing. It moved me in a way I was not expecting.
I remember at the end of the show, when I looked up and I felt what was coming from the audience, I just told them, “Love wins out every time, man.” No matter what we go through. Because we’ve seen this craziness in our history as a country for generations, and one thing that got us through it all is the love we have for mankind. And I know that sounds like a pie-in-the-sky, really idealistic thing to say, but it’s really true.
Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective Saturday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $35. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.