Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Love, Loss, Living Sounds


I've been aware of saxophonist and composer Michael Blake since the mid-1990s when, along with bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Ted Nash, and trumpeter Ron Horton, he co-founded the Jazz Composers Collective.  During that time, Blake was also a member of the Lounge Lizards and, by the end of the decade, co-founded Slow Poke with guitarist Dave Tronzo. Since then, he has worked with artists as diverse as Neil Sedaka, trumpeter Enrico Rava, guitarist Charlie Hunter, pianist Henry Butler, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and many others. Along the way, he's recorded 14 albums for labels such Songlines, Sunnyside, Ropeadope, Newvelle Records (see below), and others.

Album number 15 "Dance of the Mystic Bliss" (P&M Records) is a fascinating program for the get-go.  After Blake's Mother passed in 2018, the saxophonist felt no desire to write or even play. When the pandemic closed down the world, he felt his lethargy lift and began writing inspired by his mother's joy for living (she was a dancer and teacher).  Blake built a unique ensemble for this project; four string instruments (violin, cello, electric guitar, and acoustic bass), two percussionists (drums, cymbals, shakers, marimba, etc.), and his expanded reed arsenal (soprano and tenor saxes plus flute and alto flute).  The percussionists (Mauro Refosco and Rogerio Boccato) were tasked with creating the rhythm arrangements).  Violinist Skye Steele (who has worked with artists such as Anthony Braxton, Willie Nelson, Deer Tick) suggested cellist Christopher Hoffman (Henry Threadgill, Anat Cohen, Anna Webber) while the leader brought in guitarist Guilherme Monteiro (Kenny Werner, Kurt Elling, Lila Downs) and bassist Michael Bates (Ben Monder, Donny McCaslin).  Blake also brought 10 pieces, most new and the others rearranged for this ensemble (dubbed Chroma Nova).

What the interested listener gets is a playful yet melodic blend of "world" sounds (especially West African and Brazilian) with improvisation and more than a touch of blues.  The album opener, "Merle the Pearl", is inspired by and dedicated to Blake's mother.  Each time the song plays, I hear the influence of Arthur Blythe's "Down San Diego Way" in the mix of percussion, rhythm-inspired melody line, and how the saxophonist soars gleefully over the ensemble.  Later in the program, "Sagra" takes a similar approach but Steele's "hoe-down" fiddle adds a new dimension.  Blake builds his tenor solo off of Steele's riffs, digging into the percussive groove.

In conversation, Blake told me that, for this album, he started playing flute (he had been so blown away by the flute work of the late Thomas Chapin that he did not pick up the instrument for over a decade.  One hears the flute in the intro of "Prune Pluck Pangloss" but the leader returns to tenor for a powerful solo. "The Meadows" also commences with a flute melody––this time, the leader creates a fine solo, first over the shimmering strings and coming to its close over the bass and rhythm section. After an excellent spot for Monteiro, Blake's flute takes flight, swirling, soaring, and fluttering while Refosco and Boccato create a rhythmic playground of sounds. 

Besides the splendid percussion and delightful flute playing, the use of Steele and Hoffman's strings stand out. Not only is the former an impressive violinist but also his "exotic" instruments (the one-stringed gonji and the three-stringed rabeka or rebec) add so many different colors. Hoffman's cello and his deep resplendent sound gives the music a counter-weight to Blake's soprano sax  as well as a counterpoint to Bate's foundational bass lines. Listen below to "Le Coeur du Jardin (The Heart of the Garden)" for its beauty and mystery and the excellent cello solo (which, as it moves along, breaks into two celli). 
Whether it's insistent funk of "Little Demons" or the mysterious jungle of "Weeds", "Dance of the Mystic Bliss" satisfies on so many levels. The wit, the immediacy of the sound, the thoughtful solos, all that and more makes this album one to explore time and time again––just might want to get up and dance, who knows?

For more information, go to www.michaelblake.net/. To hear more and to purchase the album. go to  https://michaelblake.bandcamp.com/album/dance-of-the-mystic-bliss.

Listen to "Le Coeur du Jardin (The Heart of the Garden)":

In the Fall of 2022, Newvelle Records inaugurated its "Renewal Series" with albums by label co-owner and pianist Evan Mehler, Dave Liebman, Nadje Noordhuis, and Michael Blake.  For "Combobulate", Blake (tenor and soprano saxes, flute) assembled a brass quartet composed of trumpet (Steven Bernstein), trombone (Clark Gayton), and two master tuba players (Bob Stewart and Marcus Rojas) to which he added drummer Allan Mednard. The music lives up to the series name as it renews the listener's faith in the power of music to give hope in dark times.  The album opens with "Henry's Boogaloo" that rides in on the New Orleans "beat" and the bouncing tuba lines.  Bernstein comes in with a riff playing off the rhythm and then Blake introduces the melody. The saxophonist solos over the tuba counterpoint and Mednard's "kicking" drums. Check out the fun on "Bills in the Bell", how Rojas (walking bass lines, no less) and Mednard push the piece, how Stewart's voice shows up in the background "horn arrangement", the rollicking solo from Bernstein, the drum solo with Rojas bobbing and weaving which leads the band into a slower yet no less funky beat while the flute joins the brass. Feeling blue, Buddy––turn up the volume and rock the house!

Watch and listen below to "Malagasy". Notice the smiles on Mednard's face as he kicks the band forward, note the concentration on Rojas's face, and how everyone's voice is part of the joyous African rhythm and melody.  Love how trombonist Gayton dances in his chair while soloing.  Pay attention to how the voices of the ensemble mesh throughout the piece

There are slower moments including the gospel-like tones and feeling of "Cuyahoga Valley" (such gorgeous low notes) as well as the plaintive "Bob The Bob". The emotional melody line that Blake plays gets a rich tuba counterpoint ––it's arguably the most soulful tune in the program. One of the two bonus pieces on the digital download, "Anthem for No Country", features album co-producer Elan Mehler on piano––there is a hint of Abdullah Ibrahim in the melody (the song first appeared on Blake's 2001 "Elevated" album) and a feel of South African Township music (on both versions actually). 

"Combobulate" comes to a close with "The Parting Glass", a traditional song attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns. There are dozens of versions, mostly vocal, of the song to be found online, and one can hear hints of Burns' "Auld Lang Syne" in the melody. The ensemble plays it straight, sans drums for the first half––when Mednard enters, his steady beat under the long tones of the horns which support Bernstein and Blake as they weave lines around each other, gives the music a touch of a 1960s "soul" ballad. However you decide what the song sounds like is fine, the piece is a gentle coda to an impressive collection of songs. 

Michael Blake has proven time and again over his career how big his ears are, how open to the musics of different traditions he can be, and how his musical voices can elicit many different emotions in the course of a performance or recording. "Combobulate" certainly is music for a "renewal" of the spirit and the soul. Highly recommended!!

As promised above, "Malagasy":

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