Dallas — Six months after an African-American gunman killed five white and Hispanic Dallas police and DART officers, Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective rolled into Dallas with a message: We had to be here.” In announcing the tour last year, he stated, “This band represents the best of America’s ideals. We’re five very different personalities with different visions who play together for a common goal: Creating music that hopefully heals hearts and opens minds.”
Judging by the many audience members in tears by the final number at Wyly Theatre on Saturday night, they succeeded.
The concert, presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center, was being recorded for Caravan, a sequel to Blanchard’s Breathless. The 2015 CD channeled his anguish over the murder of Eric Garner who gasped “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by a Staten Island policeman for selling cigarettes. Caravan continues the conversation. It is being recorded live in cities scarred by racial violence, both by police and against police: Minneapolis (fatal shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile), Cleveland (fatal shooting of 11-year-old Tamir Rice), and Dallas (fatal shooting of five law enforcement officers: Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Sgt. Michael Smith, and officers Michael Krol, and Patricio “Patrick” Zamarripa of the Dallas Police Dept., and officer Brent Thompson of Dallas Area Rapid Transit).
Blanchard and the E-Collective brewed a mesmerizing evening of jazz fused with a deep funk and R&B groove, all deepened with a blues sensibility and laced with emotional depth. The visceral sound seized mind and body and never stopped being exciting. Anchored by Blanchard’s astounding tonal range from lyrical to pugilistic on his otherworldly trumpet, that brilliant Full Weight RAJA Bb trumpet which only powerfully lunged masters can play.
A sensitive, intellectual, soundscape guitarist and composer (Charles Altura of Oakland, Calif.) wasn’t expected by many in a band headed by the trumpet player renowned for driving the straight-ahead jazz sound of the ‘80s Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers and going on to being king bopmaster of ‘90s and on. Altura played with the lightest of hands, almost dancing on the strings, setting up relaxed harmonic arpeggios at some times and driving fusion cascades at others, tumbling down the guitar neck yet swiftly switching to classic rock power shredding.
Fabian Almazan of Cuba, another non-traditional choice, performed on a grand piano heavily modified by programming in the Apple computer wired to it. Deliciously complex and a composer at heart, Almazan provided the keyboard solos jazz requires along with an orchestra of sounds, styles, and moods that boasted breathtaking sweeps of dynamics. Both Altura and Almazan contribute several songs to the E-Collective recordings.
The E-Collective’s complexity and emotional tonality were exactly the depth Blanchard needed to tackle his chosen topics. Breathless and Caravan rise from the greatness of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” lamenting the four African American killed in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Where DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation intellectualizes via hip-hop, and, D’Angelo, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar offer their cri de coeurs, Blanchard emotionalizes on a soul-deep level. He’s tackled social justice before, notably with The Malcolm X Jazz Suite (for the Spike Lee film) and A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). But Breathless and Caravan reach beyond outrage to explore the consciousness of change. The concert was preceded by a panel discussion on using the arts to affect racial perceptions and create conversations for positive social change.
That high-minded musical ambition would be for naught without the should-be-legendary rhythm section of drummer Oscar Seaton of Chicago and bassist David “DJ” Ginyard of South Carolina They played without distraction through huge waves of divergent music from Blanchard, Altura, and Almazan. An extremely challenging task yet they did it smiling. Seaton, known as “Seatpocket” for his vigorous impeccable timing, radiates positive energy, a feisty instigator of the band. Ginyard, so new to the ensemble he played some tunes from charts, is a thrilling addition. Exceedingly adaptable, he goes well beyond an anchoring bass throb to provide significant and perfectly tasty chordal tones.
Blanchard and the E-Collective warmed up the crowd with a jazz-funk cover tune imbued by a striding bass and shuffling drums holding down atmospheric guitar lines and soaring trumpet.“ Tondrae Kemp stepped in the vocalist role held on Breathless by Maroon 5’s P.J. Morton for a tune that had the audience in total boogie. The boundless heart of Blanchard shone in his lush melodic composition “Charles Unchanged“ with its extraordinary interchange of bass and guitar and an extended drum showcase. His respect and compassion for social workers resonated in his beautiful piece “Soldiers.”
“Soul Sync” showcased the band’s ability to present solos that were virtuosic, yet never flashy, and smoothly embedded enough it never seemed solo-to-solo, like so many jazz tunes. Almazan’s heavily processed piano was profound and complex, the foundation of the song which he composed. Themes presented themselves, echoed and interpreted, moving the band to a powerful apex as the motifs gelled together. Pushing it over the top was Blanchard’s synthesized trumpet intersecting with each theme. The rhythm section achieved excellence while being jaw-dropping adaptive to Almazan and Blanchard’s improvisation.
With the concert seemingly at a close, some (perhaps ATTPAC regulars) packed up and started to leave. But a mass of jazz heads stood, hooted, and clapped for an encore. A pre-concert poll showed half the crowd was new to ATTPAC. Perhaps these enthusiastic jazzers were the newbies, showing a huge, untapped market for high-quality modern jazz presented in a non-club venue. The Wyly’s intimacy proved to be perfect.
Blanchard and the E-Collective returned, rewarding the audience’s affections with an emotionally searing tune. Waves of interwoven deconstructed blues crashed against souls and dissolved defensive barriers. Peaks of primal outrage and pain contrasted against beautiful, contemplative keyboards. The trumpet, barely processed, conveyed a passionate emotional appeal—We can be better than this, so aspire to be more. A pre-recorded narration explored the high stakes of being mortal humans and implored us all not to waste this precious moment on Earth in perpetual conflict. The band’s instrumental voices, once dissonant, fused at the end, leaving the audience stricken with tears as if touched by the divine spark of humanity. The narrator’s words resounded: “What kind of human do you choose to be? That’s the human challenge.”