Terence Blanchard & the E-Collective: Groove As Advocacy

Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective’s headlining set at the Art of Cool Fest began with a sense of drama that was only amplified by the elegance and grandeur of the Carolina Theatre. Blanchard’s trumpet seemed to howl with anguish while the E-Collective quartet maintained a hard-edged groove underneath, creating a palpable tension and forward momentum that was infectious. With nods to jazz fusion and Miles Davis’ electric explorations of the ‘70s, a dose of R&B, blues, and funk, and the urgency of music with a deeper message, Blanchard and company gave the audience a great deal to consider.

Although the music they performed that night had its feet planted firmly in the now, the Grammy-award-winning Blanchard is no fresh face to the jazz scene. In fact, anyone who’s enjoyed a Spike Lee film from Jungle Fever on has heard his compositional style. Since 1991, he has had a successful solo recording career playing traditional jazz and now heavier, more groove-based music with his group E-Collective. Breathless, his first album with the E-Collective, is his heaviest yet. Though the music came first, it became clear to Blanchard that he had to speak out about police brutality and the deaths of so many African-Americans as a result, and the music naturally took on that voice.

The group was first conceived by Blanchard and drummer Oscar Seaton during the scoring of Spike Lee’s Inside Man. It took them eight years, but they finally came together while America was embroiled in the high-profile police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “Once we got to it, we were in Europe, and we noticed that there was a lot of stuff going on back in the States—a lot of crazy stories about violence with African-American youth and law enforcement. We took note, and all of the meanings of the songs started to change. That became the basis of the album,” Blanchard said ahead of Art of Cool Fest.

He goes on to speak more about impacting youth through musical exposure, saying “Part of what we’re trying to do is reach […] kids, to let them know if they want to play an instrument there’s a way to do it at a high level that can be very rewarding. It’s all about trying to bring people together, trying to show people other options.” During a press interview at Art of Cool, he elaborated more on why he thinks young people are very important to the future of music: “The thing I love about working with young folks […] is that there’s some young creative minds out there that are astonishing. […] And the thing that blows my mind is that when you give them the tools [they can do incredible things.]”

Seeing cuts from Breathless performed live only confirmed this, as up-and-coming bandmates Charles Altura (on guitar) and Fabian Almazan (on piano) have unique and masterful voices on their respective instruments. Altura’s guitar seems to soar and blaze with a bite to rival any contemporary jazz guitarist today. Almazan’s fleet fingers have Cuban roots, and his touch on the piano and synth alike is reminiscent of jazz and fusion greats like Joe Zawinul. “Fabian is probably one of the great young talents of his generation,” Blanchard has said of Almazan. “Once people really hear what he’s about and what he’s doing, they’re gonna be enriched.”

Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective will continue to tour in support of Breathless, their next show will be in Seoul, South Korea.

New year, same Ms. Lauryn Hill

laurynhill2
Hannah Sommer Photography

COLUMBIA, SC It’s an hour til the new year.  The clock is ticking on an empty stage directly in front of the South Carolina State House, where the notorious confederate flag had waved for fifty four years… until 2015 took it down.  A congested and anxious crowd stretches all the way down Main Street as they patiently and confusedly wait for the infamously late Lauryn Hill. An equally confused DJ sporadically appears on stage, giving his all to hype up the crowd with old school hip hop and classic Fugees tracks. Ready or not here she comes.  Lauryn strides across the stage in a layered cape-like black dress and rimmed hat. She sits quietly on the couch in the middle of the stage next to a table of burning white candles. She picks up a guitar, a surprising sight for most fans who know her as a rapper and poppy R&B singer, and lets her voice flow over the relieved crowd, offering a sense of peace to the close of an intense year for the city.

laurynhill6
Hannah Sommer Photography

Since the release of her solo – and only – original album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, Hill has fallen from the public eye to become somewhat of a musical mystery. Ms. Hill, famed for being the first female musician to win five Grammy Awards, is now renowned for her outlandish behaviour and critical comments toward the music industry and press. In 2013, Ms. Hill served three months in prison for tax evasion. Ten years prior, in 2003, Ms. Hill made controversial statements attacking the Catholic church about child molestation, while playing a Christmas concert at the Vatican. She often appears hours late for her shows and will sometime not appear at all.

laurynhill5
Hannah Sommer Photography

Despite media criticism, Ms. Hill has kept herself busy with various personal projects. Her dedication to social justice and activism is little-publicized. She founded The Refugee Camp Youth Project in 1996 to help inner city kids and children living in harsh conditions in countries such as Zaire and Haiti. In fact, her performance at Columbia’s “Famously Hot New Year” was a benefit for local victims of the flood that occurred this past fall.

She recently resurfaced, contributing to “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary. “Feeling Good,” is jaw dropping and sincerely showcases Ms. Hill’s connection to the late Nina Simone. The cover expands Simone’s work with a more upbeat rhythm and familiar sentimental undertones.

laurynhill4
Hannah Sommer Photography

In the wake of her performance, Ms. Hill’s reputation inconsistency in the public arena is easy to dismiss. This just might be one of the last true artists, not owned by the industry, but by her artistry. She renounces her celebrity status and creates work on her own terms and time, producing for herself and not because it is expected or owed to anyone. Ms. Hill, mother of six and longtime partner of Rohan Marley (yes, Bob Marley’s son), has kept her values close to home. She abandoned the spotlight for the sake of her family and self, an act that we can assume is difficult for one of R&Bs superstars to undertake.

Ms. Lauryn Hill has been an inspiration and influence to many. In 2014, fellow rapper and activist Talib Kweli penned “In Defense of Ms. Hill” on Medium and produced a song titled “Ms. Hill,” spelling out her legacy and struggles with fame in 2005.

She has been referred to as one the greatest R&B singers of all time; and who could doubt it when her seventeen-year-old Miseducation still resonates with crowds and sells records. (Disclosure: Hill’s producer, Phil Nicolo, just made a statement that a new original album is on the horizon.)

As Ms. Hill ends her set with her greatest hit “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the once-restless crowd experiences a tone that cleanses, the capitol of South Carolina bids goodbye and good riddance to the bullet wounds and torrential rains of 2015, and her deep, melodic voice welcomes the birth of a new year.

Photographs by Hannah Sommer. Check her siteInstagram, or Facebook for more.

laurynhill1
Hannah Sommer Photography

 

 

 

Photographs by Hannah Sommer. Check her siteInstagram, or Facebook for more.