Terence Blanchard has never been what you'd call predictable. Like Wynton Marsalis before him, the trumpeter left New Orleans in the early '80s, served an apprenticeship with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and seemed destined for leadership in the tradition-focused "Young Lions" movement committed to steering jazz back onto a straight-ahead track.
But Blanchard veered off that narrow path. He became Spike Lee's composer of choice, scoring nearly all of the director's films since 1991's Jungle Fever. His own music grew more ambitious in scope, from the 2007 album-length suite A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), inspired by the devastation wrought on his hometown by Hurricane Katrina, to the 2013 jazz opera Champion, based on the life of welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith.
Last year, he took another unexpected turn with his latest release, Breathless. The album introduced his new band, the E-Collective, an electro-acoustic ensemble inspired as much by hip-hop and modern rock such as Radiohead as by the fusion bands of Blanchard's youth, including Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. "Influences for this band came from all over the place," Blanchard said last week, over the phone from Ohio's Oberlin College, where he was rehearsing for a performance of A Tale of God's Will.
"The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Rage Against the Machine - when I was growing up, I was listening to Parliament Funkadelic along with Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and [classical trumpeter] Maurice André. I never wanted to be that guy that says there's a finite set of criteria that defines who I am. The universe is too big for that."
Like Blanchard's inspirations, members of the E-Collective span generations. Original bassist Donald Ramsey was a friend from Blanchard's high school days, and drummer Oscar Seaton has played on many of Blanchard's sound tracks for Lee and other filmmakers. Guitarist Charles Altura and pianist Fabian Almazan (and his replacement for Friday's show at the Annenberg, Taylor Eigsti) are the latest in a growing line of rising stars whom Blanchard has mentored.
"We didn't have any rules or regulations when we started this group," Blanchard said. "Over the last couple of years, the possibilities of what this band can do have started to become clear to us. We still feel like there's so much more room for exploration. I'm 54 years old, but playing with these guys has been a new experience, and it's growing every day that I'm with them."
The title track of Breathless pays tribute to the infamous last words of Eric Garner, an African American man who died in 2014 at the hands of the NYPD. Though Blanchard has dealt with social and political issues through his music in the past, that commentary is particularly pointed in his work with the E-Collective, which uses rap, spoken word, and vocals (Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton guests on Breathless, singing an updated version of Gene McDaniels' "Compared to What") to make literal the emotional ideas expressed through Blanchard's horn.
The trumpeter will arrive Friday in Philadelphia at a particularly meaningful time in American politics, less than three weeks before one of the most bizarre and contentious election seasons in the nation's history will finally come to a close. Blanchard's disgust after the second presidential debate was apparent. "Watching that debate was excruciating," he said. "I didn't want to turn away because I was hoping for a redeeming moment at some point, and there just wasn't one. Hillary and Trump both call themselves 'public servants,' but they didn't talk at all about the humanitarian crisis going on right now in Haiti. That to me, speaks volumes about our entire process and where we are as a country."
Given Blanchard's experience in the aftermath of Katrina, his keen interest in the fate of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew is deeply personal. One of the most arresting scenes in Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts captured Blanchard accompanying his mother as she returned to her flooded home in Pontchartrain Park. "Of course, that's part of my outrage," Blanchard said. "That's one of the reasons why I'm speaking about it the way I'm speaking about it now. I saw how people were affected."
Ultimately, the kaleidoscopic sound of the E-Collective gives Blanchard the opportunity not only to express those thoughts, but also to reach out to a much broader audience that he hopes will be receptive to them.
"I think it gives us a chance to reel in some young folks who are not necessarily jazz fans," Blanchard said. "We're trying to inspire them to come and check out an improvisational music that's dealing with social issues that relate to them. A big part of who we are now is trying to create more dialogue, trying to have people think things through, and, hopefully, getting a chance to touch some minds and hearts. It's imperative that we as a culture wake up to some of this stuff, because lives are at stake."