Jazz Mastery on Display at the Athenaeum

Sometimes, just sometimes, everything is right with a concert. Such was the case on a windy, rainy San Diego night this week in La Jolla.

Tenor saxophonist and composer Michael Blake presented a concert of his original works on Monday, March 7, 2016, at the cozy Joan & Irwin Jacobs Music Room at the La Jolla Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. Hailing from New York City by way of our northern neighbor Canada, Blake showed us much of what is excellent and commendable on today’s jazz scene.

Along with colleagues Frank Kimbrough, piano; Ben Allison, bass, and Rudy Royston, drums, the quartet surveyed music from Blake’s recent CD release “Tiddy Boom,”  a composition, research and recording project that was made possible through a grant from Chamber Music America. It focuses on the work of two tenor titans–Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969) and Lester Young (1909-1959)–who served as esthetic prototypes for Blake. Appropriately enough, the CD and concert were both entitled “Tiddy Boom,” an onomatopoetic description by Lester “Pres” Young explaining how he wanted his drummers to sound.


Michael Blake at Ath

Michael Blake Quartet [photo courtesy of Daniel Atkinson/The La Jolla Athenaeum]

Having said that, it is hard to discern anything other than subtle evidence from either of those tenor players in Blake’s own work. Perhaps he has absorbed them so completely that their presence is felt more than heard. To my ears, I heard a much richer admixture of Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons than either Pres or Hawk. Blake played with the requisite post-modern harmonic sophistication but also brought an unusual ease to the stage. Although he could be playing fast tempos, exploring some extended techniques such as multi-phonics or singing while playing, it never came off as a big deal. The entire group’s playing, in fact, was remarkably controlled throughout the whole concert in an almost self-effacing way.

There’s an old joke: How do you get a musician to complain? Answer: give him a gig.  How refreshing then to hear a mature, masterful, confident and humble musician just doing what he does best, accompanied by equally gifted sidemen who all seemed to be happy to be right where they are. Their pleasure was palpable and infectious.

Michael Blake, courtesy of the La Jolla Athenaeum

Michael Blake [photo courtesy of the La Jolla Athenaeum]

The program consisted of seven original Blake tunes, opening with “Tiddy Boom,” the title cut from his new CD on Sunnyside Records. Its angular melody was performed with grace, elegance and no hint of its difficulty. The band followed up with “A Good Day for Pres,” a blues in which the tenor came the closest all night to sounding like Lester Young. Of particular interest was the tune “Letters In Disguise,” a multi-sectioned suite that is dedicated to Blake’s daughter, Iris. To my ears, the haunting opening melody was redolent of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” in its searching and yearning tone. The work unfolds into a 6/8 jazz waltz that provided an opportunity for exquisitely controlled multi-phonic playing on the tenor as well as some inside the piano work by Kimbrough.

The program concluded with “The Ambassadors,” in which Blake was allowed to channel the late tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris. The infectious groove and melody left the entire audience humming the song as they exited the building into the rainy La Jolla night.

Blake’s composing and arranging skills are impressive. His choice to perform every tune on the program without music speaks to the deep commitment that he has to his art. It was encouraging to see many younger fans at the concert, especially since the entire Quartet displayed so much of what is right in the music world–a deep commitment to excellence, obvious humility in the face of their muse and a seriousness of purpose that never sounded self-important nor devolved into psittacism.

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