Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective and Jacob Collier electrify the Barbican

There’s a rich tradition of mentoring in jazz. New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard benefitted from it when he joined the great Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and now he’s passing on his knowledge.

His latest group of protégés are the E-Collective, who appear on Breathless, Blanchard’s most electronic album to date. It’s a highly political recording, which takes its name from “I can’t breathe”, the last words of Eric Garner, a black New Yorker who died in a police chokehold in July 2014, and it was conceived as a protest against gun violence and brutality. But here the trumpeter described it as a protest against all violence and chose to dedicate the show to the victims of the Paris attacks.

Perhaps because of the rawness of those wounds, the music was angrier than it is on record, full of screaming, effects-driven trumpet solos and heavy grooves that borrowed from R&B, hip hop, funk, rock and drum and bass. As an emotional statement it was superb and there were some great moments, including on the title track, with its Glasper-esque R&B feel, when Blanchard triggered samples of politically-charged spoken word (“Am I wrong for believing a King’s dream had come true?”), recorded by his son, T. Oliver Blanchard Jr.

But overall, the set suffered from a lack of variety. Most of the tunes wound up as rocky shred-fests over harmonically static grooves, with drummer Oscar Seaton relentlessly nailing his snare on the backbeat. He’s a phenomenally energetic player and contributed some blistering solos – at one point working his kit over with such ferocity that he broke his drum stool – he was just too dominant.

I struggled with Blanchard’s choice of synth sound too. It dates the music in a way I’m not sure he intends and it made the band sound like a relic from the fusion era. It would have been nice to hear more from Fabian Almazan on piano, whose solos came as a welcome acoustic palate cleanser.  

The audience were certainly divided. There was a steady trickle of people leaving in the later stages of the performance and a hefty chunk made a break for it before the encore, a dedication to Jimi Hendrix lifted by bubbling slap bass fills from Donald Ramsey and some nice ensemble hits. Yet many of those who stayed were applauding furiously.

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A first half set from London-based jazz prodigy Jacob Collier, a multi instrumentalist YouTube star who counts Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Quincy Jones among his mentors/fans, was more universally well received. “Jacob's music fills me with a rich blend of awe and fear,” writes a commenter on one of Collier’s recent videos, and it’s hard to put it better than that. He plays everything and he sings headily rich 14 part vocal harmonies over the top.

To achieve that live, he has a state-of-the-art looper, which also plays bits of pre-recorded backing track, allowing him to construct his musical millefeuille – grooves of a thousand intricate layers. The looper also loops live video and the big screen at the back of the room became a kaleidoscopic graphic novel with numerous Collier incarnations – all in cow-print t-shirt and multi-coloured harem trousers – playing numerous instruments, as the real Jacob Collier bounced from kit to keys and percussion to piano. God knows how it all works, but the mystery is part of the fun – it adds to the sense of wonder.

Collier’s YouTube hits arrived, some with a few tweaks. His arrangement of ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’ opened with halting, electro-enhanced, James Blake-style vocals. ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ brought beatboxing, Britten-like close harmony and a face-melting melodica solo; while ‘Close To You’ arrived with a filthy, hip hop groove – as lopsided as a hydraulics-driven lowrider.

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It feels like Collier is still getting used to the new tech. There were times when he seemed constrained by the pre-programmed backing track and had to dash between instruments to make his next entry. And sometimes he tried to do too much. ‘P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)’ could do with fewer changes of groove and a little more room to breath. As could ‘Don’t You Know?’, a Collier original due to feature on his debut album, which hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be. A sparse but affectionate rendering of Brian Wilson’s ‘In My Room’ was one of the highlights of the set and proof that less is so often more.

But they’re minor caveats – a little too much icing sugar on the millefeuille. Collier is a phenomenal musician – the Platonic ideal of one-man band. Much like Blanchard when he joined Art Blakey, he has the world at his feet. Following his progress will be a thrill.

      – Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

      – Photos by Tim Dickeson

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