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An artful cacophony by Terence Blanchard quintet

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
An artful cacophony by Terence Blanchard quintet
Terence Blanchard and members of the E-Collective. PHOTO: HENRY ADEBONOJO

On Saturday night, Jan. 18, Terence Blanchard and his quintet, the E-Collective, gave a concert at the Berklee Performance Center, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Terence Blanchard is no stranger at Berklee, where in 2015 he was a visiting scholar. That same year, he released his first album with the E-Collective, “Breathless,” named in honor of Eric Garner, whose death while in a police chokehold gave rise to the protest slogan “I Can’t Breathe.”

The quintet’s second album, “Live,” released in 2018, also bears witness to public trauma — America’s epidemic of gun violence — offering through music a channel to express the anger, frustration and grief of afflicted families and communities, as well as healing.    

A five-time Grammy winner, jazz trumpeter, composer and music educator, Blanchard is prominent on multiple fronts. In 2019, he received an Oscar nomination for best original score for “BlacKkKlansman” by Spike Lee, whose films he has been scoring for three decades. Next year, the Metropolitan Opera will produce one of his operas, its first by a black composer.

The concert opened with a staged start. A recorded voice, sermon-strength, spoke of truth-telling and justice as lights illuminated a stage that was empty but for instruments, including a grand piano, keyboards and a drum set and mics. Audience members not familiar with Blanchard’s 2009 release “Choices” would not have recognized the voice of Dr. Cornel West, a philosopher and civil rights activist whose reflections on free will and personal responsibility are featured on the album.

After this brief prelude, the musicians came on stage and performed a 90-minute set drawn from “Breathless” and “Live.” Accompanying Blanchard, who played trumpet and a keyboard, were drummer Oscar Seaton Jr.; Fabian Almazan on piano and synthesizers; bassist David “DJ” Ginyard Jr.; and guitarist Matt Sewell, Berklee ’19.   

The sheer musicianship of the players was evident, although their vein of jazz, heavy on electronica, pulled listeners who prefer the emotional intimacy of synthesizer-free music into alien terrain. Blanchard and his quintet were after something different, inducing high-test, high-energy impact and aggressive power. Equipped with a harmonizer, Blanchard’s instrument sounded like a pair of trumpets, each with a different pitch, resulting in a somewhat blurred and edgy tone. Even the piano sounded slightly altered, more ethereal, adding to a sense of distance suiting the soundtrack of a space odyssey.

Yet even for the uninitiated, rewards seeped in. Blanchard began the second selection with a trumpet peal that sounded like a salute, or perhaps a summons, and Seaton’s drums let loose with a parade rhythm evoking the marching bands of New Orleans, Blanchard’s hometown.

Amid the artful cacophony, sonic landscapes of trauma, violence, lament, release and resolution emerged. Solo and ensemble passages voiced shifts in emotional state, at times surging with oceanic force. Serenity, too, had its place, through occasional give-and-take between the musicians, such as a deft lyrical interlude between Sewell and Almazan that unfolded like a shared soliloquy.

Throughout the concert, Seaton, like Blanchard an industry veteran, was a warm and engaging presence, his instrument unmediated by electronics and his manner visibly expressing delight. Raised in Chicago where he played in church ensembles, and a longtime drummer for Lionel Richie, Seaton helped Blanchard envision the E-Collective and its funk, R&B and blues grooves. 

After performing five selections, the ensemble concluded with an encore, “Choices,” from Blanchard’s 2009 album of the same name. Their rendering of this 17-minute masterpiece delivered the purging power and uplift of a great gospel song.

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