Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Wildly Majestic New Double Live Album and a Vanguard Stand from High-Voltage, Individualistic Drummer/Composer Johnathan Blake

These days pretty much every phone can capture at least some of a concert in various degrees of dodgy audio or video. But what’s the likehlihood of being at a transcendent performance that ended up being released as a live album? For anybody who might regret missing out on drummer Johnathan Blake‘s transcendent, torrential trio performances with Chris Potter on tenor sax and Linda May Han Oh on bass at the Jazz Gallery earlier this year, good news! You can hear the group in all their dark, majestic, wickedly catchy glory on Blake’s marathon new double live album, Trion, streaming at Bandcamp. Blake has been on a creative tear this year: he’s making his Vanguard debut as a bandleader tonight, Dec 3 with his similarly exhilarating Pentad featuring Joel Ross on vibes and Immanuel Wilkins on tenor sax on a stand that continues through Dec 8, with sets at 8:30 and around 11. You might want to get there early because it’s going to be intense.

For anyone who might scowl snarkily at the idea of a seventeen-minute chordless jazz version of the Police’s Sychronicity I, you have to hear the album’s opening track – to be fair, the original is actually a decent new wave tune and fertile source material. The bandleader kicks it off with a judicious solo tour of the drumkit, like a tabla player making sure everything’s right: Blake’s unusually musical tuning instantly identifies him. All the other tracks here are as epic, if slightly shorter, i.e. around the ten-minute mark. If you want to kick back with an album that’s going to keep you up all night, this is it.

Potter playfully throws a spitball or two before launching into the tune head-on with the rhythm section tightly alongside. From there they motor along, leaving a lot of space and elbow room for Oh’s gritty propulsion, Blake’s adrenalizing outward expansion and Potter’s artful variations. The saxophonist teases the crowd until a searing trill in response to an evil Blake roll; Oh’s long solo has a remarkably austere, balletesque grace.

Oh introduces Trope, her lone composition here, with an expansive yet darkly terse, distantly Appalachian-tinged solo intro, taking the implied menace introduced by the Police tune to the next level; then Potter enters hazily over her warily pulsing chords, which will give you goosebumps. The rest is equal parts gorgeousness and latin-tinged gravitas, which Blake seizes on: it’s arguably the highlight of the night.

Likewise, Oh’s funky intro kicks off the scampering shuffle One for Honor, by Charles Fambrough, the bassist who took a young Blake under his wing early in his career in Philadelphia. This song without words is just about as catchy and unsettled, Potter working the unease of the passing tones for all they’re worth, up to an enveloping hailstorm of a Blake solo.

Blake’s first anthem on the album, High School Daze, will resonate with anyone who couldn’t wait to get the hell out” Potter channels soul-crushing tedium balanced by guarded hope and then playful defiance. Oh subtly runs a hip-hop-tinged loop; Blake makes a second-line groove out of a simple rap riff; then Oh takes a biting solo that brings to mind mid-70s Stevie Wonder. No Bebop Daddy – an incisively waltzing shout out to Donny McCaslin’s kid, who really knew what he didn’t want to hear on the morning drive to school – has a delicously dark, pointillistic Oh solo and a long climb to an aching, livewire Potter crescendo.

Tne second record also gets a solo Blake intro, the subtly leapfrogging Bedrum, leading into the first of the Potter ompositions, the bouncy, hypnotically crescendoing, vampy Good Hope, with a long climb to a mighty sax solo. His second tune is the warmly saturnine Eagle, Oh’s twilit, folksy riffs setting the stage for the saxophonist’s lyrical drift toward wary, modal JD Allen-esque intensity and back. The trio stay in a similar, slightly more carefree latin-tinged vein for a sprawling, impromptu encore of Charlie Parker’s Relaxing at the Camarillo.

The debut recording of the catchy but enigmatically shifting Blue Heart, by Blake’s dad – the distinctive and underrated jazz violinist John Blake Jr. – has a loose-limbed, syncopated strut and Potter’s most casually genial work here. The album’s final number is West Berkley Street, a jaunty shout-out to Blake’s hip-hop-infused childhood stomping ground. What a treat to be able to revisit such a magic couple of nights.

December 3, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thunderous Tunesmithing with Johnathan Blake’s Trio at the Jazz Gallery

What’s the likelihood that tenor sax powerhouse Chris Potter would find himself onstage with two other equally formidable tunesmiths? That happened last night at the Jazz Gallery, in an ecstatically pulsing, rumbling, thundering trio set with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer/bandleader Johnathan Blake.

Another way to look at it is to ask how recently a drummer-led, chordless trio sold out a major Manhattan jazz venue – which was also the case last night. The premise of photographer/engineer Jimmy Katz’s new non-profit Giant Step Arts’ new Jazz Gallery series, which Blake’s trio inaugurated over the past couple of evenings, is to provide ambitious, outside-the-box artists with “What a record label would have done for them in the 90s,” as Katz put it before the show. From a two-night stand, a bandleader gets professional quality audio, video, a press kit, a live album and cds to sell.

What Katz didn’t say is that back in the 90s, an awful lot of up-and-coming jazz composers were locked out of that establishment because they thought too far outside the box, so this is an auspicious development. The upcoming slate of performers is also auspicious: alto sax titan Rudresh Mahanthappa leading yet another new trio, and also trumpeter Jason Palmer leading a quartet with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Williams.

Let’s hope that all of last night’s first set makes it onto the live album! Drummers aren’t often known as tunesmiths, but from the very first judicious riffs of Blake’s toms, he had an anthem going: his drums are tuned to play very discernible, catchy melodies. From that jaunty intro he wove a cumulo-nimbus vortex of intricately articulated polyrhythms, calm and immutable in the center of a storm, often anchoring the music with a steady clave. Blake likes to ride the rims for extra color to balance out that looming undercurrent, another consistent source of entertainment throughout the band’s roughly hour and a half onstage.

There were a couple of moments early on where he’d jab on an insistent, crushing beat and Oh would jab right back. Otherwise, she played melodies, as she always does. She opened the night’s third number – a playful tune by one of Blake’s Philly mentors, based on a simple four-note descending progression – with what grew into a tropical fanfare of sorts. That echoed what Blake had done with his intro to Mary Had a Little Lamb earlier. Later she found herself walking a scale – but tossed that idea aside after barely a couple of bars. Cliches simply don’t exist in her world.

Potter was his usual self, playing endless volleys of terse, purist minor-key blues phrasing without once lapsing into anything remotely rote – Charlie Parker did the same thing, but without Potter’s relentless focus. And Potter really waited for his moments to unleash that legendary extended technique: a devious detour into duotones when Blake and Oh backed off for a moment during a catchy, subtly shapeshifting clave-fueled Blake number, and a smoldering coda of valve-grinding harmonics to wind it up.

Oh’s tune turned out to be the night’s most complex adventure, moving beyond slinky, circular phrases punctuated by bright bass cadenzas over Blake’s pummeling rollercoaster grooves, to bright yet uneasy vistas far beyond any standard A-B-C sectioning. The night’s catchiest tune was the enigmatically modal Blake waltz that wound up the set. The bandleader explained that he took his inspiration for that one from something that Donny McCaslin’s son said to from the backseat of the family car, in response to a Phil Schaap piece on WBGO: “No bebop, daddy!” It was easy to see how this resonated with Blake – he and the kid have the same affinity for a hook.

January 23, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tuneful Two-Horn Postbop Effort from Saxophonist Stephane Spira

French-born, New York-based saxophonist Stephane Spira has an interesting backstory. An engineer by trade, he pursued his passion for jazz in wee-hours clubs in his native Paris before relocating to New York to play fulltime. His previous efforts in the studio have included collaborations with trumpeter Lionel Belmondo and pianist Giovanni Mirabassi. Spira’s fourth album as a bandleader, In Between, features more of the strikingly translucent, disarmingly catchy compositions that have characterized his work.

The performances here center around a tight harmonic interplay and lively, intuitive interaction between Spira and trombonist (and Steve Lacy collaborator) Glenn Ferris, anchored and spiced by a similarly integral rhythm section, Steve Wood on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. There’s irony in the album title, inspired by the cosmopolitan dynamic of a Paris-born bandleader in NYC, and the American-born, Paris-based Ferris. As usual, Spira matches a terse lyricism to a slightly smoky tone on tenor sax and a similarly thoughtful, considered, Steve Lacy-inspired clarity on soprano, all the while engaging the rest of the band both rhythmically and melodically throughout a diverse mix of numbers that span the emotional spectrum. In addition to nine originals here, Spira radically reinvents Duke Ellington’s Reflections in D as a mystical tone poem before swinging it hard, and transforms the Baden Powell/Vincius de Moraes classic Samba en Preludio into a haunting dirge driven by Wood’s starkly funereal arco work. The album winds up on a cleverly humorous note with Grounds 4 Dismissal, Wood’s wry, historically allusive joust for bass and drums.

The album’s opening track, Cosmaner, wastes no time in setting the stage with a wickedly catchy shuffle theme that’s equal part Rio and New Orleans, with nifty handoffs from tenor to trombone and Wood’s bass filling in all the implied melody. Likewise, Glenntleman serves as a bright feature for Ferris’ bluesy soulfulness. Dawn in Manhattan gives the group a long launching pad to build from balmy ambience to a slinky implied clave underpinning Spira’s warmly casual soprano and Ferris’ sly, low-down lines. In the same vein, Ferris channels Wycliffe Gordon in laid-back, drolly acerbic mode on the chromatically-fueled In Transit, divergent horn voicings coalescing to a lively conversation before Wood shifts from hypnotically circular riffage to resonant atmospherics.

Spira offers a nod to Coltrane on Flight, with its unexpected rhythmic shifts and purposeful tenor work over Blake’s flurrying, colorful volleys. The vivid ballad A Special Place has Ferris elegantly leading the band out of lushly misty Brazilian ambience into a purist blues ballad, Blake again playing colorist with his misterioso brushwork, Spira adding his signature spacious, judiciously considered phrasing.

N.Y. Time, a kinetic jazz waltz, has Spira leading an allusively moody modal groove, Ferris adding an incisive solo before Blake takes it shuffling into the shadows. With its shifting counterrhythms and tight, purist horn harmonies, the album’s title track alludes to Monk without being derivative. And the aptly titled Classic juxtaposes a bluesy Wood solo with a neat horn chart that diverges and then regroups, up to a triumphantly emphatic chorus: it’s “in the tradition” without being overly reverential, a quality that in many ways defines Spira’s work.

June 2, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment