Using Music to Underscore Three Words: I Can’t Breathe

Inspired by Miles, Coltrane and Hendrix, we offer a ‘Breathless’ effort towards truth in music

By Terence Blanchard


I want nothing less than to change hearts and souls. If you let them, music and art can do this. They go well beyond words and, to me, contain that power, are an entity, a means, pushing people to connect, to be open to absorb so many different ideas, concepts. Music is a communal thing, concerts bringing people together to vibe in one place, for one night. When I think about all of those great concerts that I’ve gone to throughout my years, inspired by the performances, an audience of like minds getting high on the beauty of the music, the message of the words, that to me is the power of this art.

Music has to be so much more than a booty call. Just think of this, if that’s all music is to you, then what is important in your life? Nothing but a good time? All night long? And while you’re celebrating and kicking it, what’s going on after the music stops? What’s that happening off the dance floor? What happened in Ferguson? What happened to Eric Garner on the streets of New York City? “F*ck your breath” to a dying man in Tulsa? The Obamas pictured as monkeys? Monkeys! People of color shot down in a church in Charleston, South Carolina for no reason other than their appearance.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for celebration, getting down, locking into the groove, putting those hands up in the air, but this stuff is real. It’s not going away because you’re dancing your brains out. I need music to change me, give me some foundation on which to push back against all this crap. I want to make music that changes people, in subtle ways, as well as funking them into a hopeful future.

Music has done it for me. Music has turned my life around. I don’t know where I would I would be for the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jimi Hendrix — all of those people. All of that music left a mark. Before I had my musical awakening, I was listening to music to satisfy my desire for technical proficiency. The albums in my stash of Desert Island Discs were all about how high and fast they could play — the chops, the need for speed, the fireworks. But then three notes hit me upside my head, telling me sit down, SIT DOWN son and listen TO ME.

Miles Davis, “My Funny Valentine.”

When I heard Miles blow those first three notes of the melody, I was awestruck. That was my shock and awe moment. Miles’ performance was so profound, I was floored. Those three notes held me down and never let go. What the hell was I doing with my horn? I could only push ahead by reflecting on the purpose of my music. Miles, at that point, with those three notes, made me understand music has the power to break down those defense mechanisms, break down those barriers in people’s souls, where they have to stop and reflect and be honest about what it is they’re feeling, what it is they’re seeing and comes to terms with that.

Wayne Shorter was another artist who pushed me forward. Wayne made me rethink the creative process. “Passionate Courage,” on my album Bounce, came out of a conversation I had with Wayne backstage at one of the JazzFests. There, he flipped my idea of what it takes to be creative upside down. He told me, it takes courage to be happy. Imagine that. To jump off the cliff into the unknown of a new song, it shouldn’t be the fear I had held onto and, sometimes, held me back; I needed courage. Damn. Another whap to the head. So I wrote that song to get me going, and from then on, I don’t sit around and wait for things to happen, I create things.

My latest album is an attempt to underscore three words: I Can’t Breathe.

That chant has become a very poignant message, creating a very powerful metaphor that explains a lot about how a certain segment of our society feels right now. If you think this is a minority, a small crowd of disgruntled citizens, you have no idea what’s coming down the road. To see the reports that came out of Ferguson, to see a police department deliberately target people in a country that puts “the land of the free” on everything it can print. You know it’s a lie. It feels like every week there’s another YouTube video going viral of police brutality, or civil rights being sent back to the 1800s.

Breathless is my attempt to draw more attention to that. This is our E-Collective version of a protest album, without the firebrand lyrics of Phil Ochs, but in mood and purpose. Much in the same way John Coltrane’s tune “Alabama” captured the immense pain and suffering of a nation as it mourned the death of those four little girls lost in the firebombing of that Birmingham Church. Coltrane’s melody made me cry and made me feel the hurt of an event that happened decades before, when I was too young to understand what the hell was really going on. As well, there’s Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” as another example. That track holds the cries of that generation who wanted desperately to move away from war, racism and sexism. You can feel Hendrix’s lyric — “with the power of soul, anything is possible” — rippling through Breathless as an undercurrent.

This album has been a part of who I am for a long time. It finally got to a point where I started to feel like it’s now or never; I have to do this now. Back in 2005, I played some grooved-based stuff with drummer Oscar Seaton for Spike’s film Inside Man, and I said then that we needed to put together a band. Last year, when I called the guys and talk to them about the E-Collective, Oscar was like; “well, finally!” And here we are.

Creating with the E-Collective, I again looked to Miles as an example, this time as a “leader.” Davis employed the greatest minds in music and allowed them to run free creatively. He gave them a framework to operate through his playing, but at the same time, allowed their imaginations to break out and explore. He lead them by inferring where they could go, which he knew was beyond the point of where he might have stopped them if he had said do this, do that. I knew we could make stronger music creating WITH these guys, not by throwing preconceived music at them.

For any project, I make sure I have a variety of different musical ideas, whether they be up tempo, medium, ballad, groove, odd-meter; all those various colors and moods keep the ideas on where I would like the album to move through as notes. But then when we start to perform it live we see which tunes are stronger than others, we start to get a feel for how the songs are evolving. We rehearsed for two days in October of 2014, did a two-week tour of Europe in November with a date at the Blue Note in Milan.

When we first started working on this, we had no idea what would happen. In Milan, I knew the word hadn’t gotten out and there were people who showed up expecting the jazz stuff and, you know, we were NOT going to give them the jazz stuff. I think at first they were a little put off. “What is that?” The touchstones were there, of Miles, of Weather Report, of Earth Wind & Fire, but we didn’t ease them into it. They had no idea what was coming. The young people got it immediately. Seeing them respond to us, open to our experiment, that took a big weight off my shoulders and the guys. We were having fun, but we were still entertaining, as they gave us got standing ovations.

The next step, during recording, is to think how do those things come together to tell one story? For me, it’s all about trying to figure out a journey or a path from beginning to end. That’s why we start the album with “Compared To What.” That sets the tone for what comes next, the bold and beat-driven “See Me As I Am” which goes into the easy, yet anxious, mood, like simmering water about to boil, of “Everglades.” As always, it took me a while to sit down and feel out the right program.

Breathless is about this time right now and this space we are living in, about the worth of a life, and the worth of living to change, choosing to protest for what is right and just. What makes you a better person? So that you are not struggling to breathe, but breathless from exerting your free will, breathless from doing good, breathless from blowing your own sweet solo. And at the end of that journey you have “Cosmic Warrior,” which is mythically about the person who comes in to come and save us, though my kids said it sounds like a superhero warrior taking on our society that’s so screwed up. (Marvel, if you want to license the rights to this guy, give us a call.) The album finishes with the Coldplay tune, “Midnight,” because, for me, this is like the moment in the wee hours of the morning, after reflection, after everything else, when I sit down for rest and rejuvenation. It’s a beautiful song and I wanted to ease us down emotionally.

Our take on “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But Time,” written by Hank Williams no less, is as a classic soul song. “I Ain’t” gives a nice break from all the seriousness where I’ve placed it. Don Was hipped me to this tune, when I was in his Orquestra Was a number of years ago. This arrangement of it just rolls out of the ashes. I had no idea how it was going to turn out and I didn’t give the guys any instruction about the groove, we listened to Don’s version, then we just laid ours down. I think Hank Williams would be happy with the way we turned his tune around; we morphed it into this cool, retro-sounding R&B soul groove tune. And PJ Morton seems to have transported himself back in time for his vocal. His performance on the track speaks to his maturity and, wonderfully, is of that era. Even though he’s not that old and never rode the Soul Train the first time around — he’s a young kid — he must have been listening to some 8-tracks or 45s, or something.

PJ Morton

I first met PJ years ago, before he was in Maroon 5. It was after a show and PJ slipped me his music to listen to; one listen and it just floored me; his musicianship and that unique voice of his were without compare. When it came time for this album, I knew he had to be the vocalist for some key tracks. The first thing he laid down for us was “Compared To What.” You want real? There it is. We are so blessed to have him on that track. For “Shutting Down” PJ slam-dunks the performance. This is a special song for me because it’s by my son, T Oliver — aka JRei Oliver — and PJ hits the meaning with his vocal; the sentiment of the song is of a person who’s dealing with a lot of stress, dealing with a lot of issues, the ground-up, beaten-down soul who can’t move forward, who can’t move ahead, he’s just shutting down. It’s a very powerful song and when you listen to PJ’s take on it, it’s just so honest and true.

Playing with the E-Collective has allowed me to be able to sit back and relax. I don’t have to think about what’s happening with the groove. I know it’s going to be there. I don’t have to worry about what’s happening creatively. I know we are going to evolve the music to something really good. The only thing I have to do is control my little corner of the world. I know Fabian (Almazan — piano) is going to come up with something creative while we’re playing. He’s always listening and I’m listening to him. Charles (Altura — guitar) is always going to push the envelope. You have to watch him, it’s like he goes into a trance when he starts to play, man, the way he plays it’s totally amazing. And Don (Ramsey — bass) and Oscar (Seaton — drums), they are that foundation and the glue that keeps it all together.

To be in this group and watch these guys come together and become like family, from day one, has been so fulfilling. It’s been interesting to travel this way with them and to create, to perform, and grow. And the main thing that’s been really crazy about this project? We feel it’s just the beginning. This is my dream band to go out there and beat by beat by beat, show some truth to people while they have their hands in the air and have a great time. Okay, shake their booty too, for in the end we want to leave them, in all senses of the word — mindful, spiritual, and physical — Breathless.


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