Jazz music, news and views

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ron Blake: Shayari

Saxophonist Ron Blake's deep, brawny tenor sound might bring to mind Johnny Griffin, Stanley Turrentine, or a bit of Sonny Rollins, but he speaks a more contemporary language with his own voice. His discography certainly reveals as much, bearing the names of young lions like Roy Hargrove, Marc Cary, and Stephen Scott, as well as veterans like Benny Golson, Art Farmer, and Jimmy Smith. He also has under his belt some notable studio work (Yerba Buena and the El Cantante soundtrack), academic positions (University of South Florida, NYU, and now Julliard), and a tenure in the Saturday Night Live band (it's his third season). Not to mention a striking handful of albums. Sonic Tonic from 2005 certainly caught my attention. His latest, Shayari, is a worthy follow-up -– and departure.

While Tonic mixed in funk and fusion flavors to great effect, Shayari finds Blake at his most elemental. The stripped-down acoustic 13-song session is comprised mostly of trio tunes with Blake and pianist Michael Cain at its core. Instead of relegating the piano to a "chording" instrument, Cain's unique contributions often jump into the foreground, slipping in and out of harmonic, melodic, and even percussive roles. "Waltz for Gwen" and his original, "76," are two of the album's highlights, containing sumptuous voicings, powerful left-hand presence, and luminescent solos. The latter also proves to be a strong showcase for Blake and his muscular, earthy tones. Alternately, his dark sound takes on a heartbreaking huskiness on "What Is Your Prayer For?," an original of his that has the timeless charm and lyricism of a well-loved standard. And "Hanuman" finds him engaging in some spiky interplay without losing a bit of his soulful character.

Shayari's variety and freshness is also a result of the rotating third chair of the trio. Jack DeJohnette's drums add some brilliant energy on five songs, but he almost steals the show on "Hanuman." Percussionist Gilmar Gomes gives a few tunes some enticing textures, especially "Waltz for Gwen." "Of Kindred Souls" spotlights Regina Carter's violin, which takes on a reedy, gutsy sound that blends well with Blake's tenor. And while Cain deftly handles the low end throughout the date, bassist Christian McBride is a welcome guest, particularly on the Bobby Hutcherson-penned swinger "Teddy."

"Of Kindred Souls," incidentally, debuted on record at the same time as Blake: it was the title track of a 1993 album by Roy Hargrove. A decade and a half later, Blake has carved a spot for himself in today's jazz landscape without leaving the tradition behind. And hearing him in a back-to-basics acoustic setting on Shayari exposes both his strong roots and how he diverges from them, powerfully and poetically.

Shayari (Mack Avenue)
Ron Blake (tenor sax)
Michael Cain (piano)

Regina Carter (violin)
Jack DeJohnette (drums)
Gilmar Gomes (percussion)
Christian McBride (bass)

[Photo courtesy of ronblakemusic.com]

Monday, February 04, 2008

For the Eyes

You'd think the new year would prompt me to resolve to update more, but given my recent schedule, I can only ease into it for now. There will be some new music in the coming weeks, but for now, a few videos that I've found in my limited free time:

Wayne Krantz: "Afkap." This tune has plenty of vibe and a fair degree of chops but Keith Carlock and Tim Lefebvre are the ones who really get to lay into this tune, especially when the tempo shifts. And I love the use of major seventh chords in the heads. Check out the previous two segments of this footage for some of Krantz's insights into conventional jazz language vis-a-vis his approach to improv.

Wilco: "Impossible Germany." I confess I only really bothered paying attention to Wilco once they recruited Nels Cline and released Sky Blue Sky. I'd only really heard about them when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot hit in 2002, but I'm warming up to them now. Nels's solo here follows the same general path of the other versions out there, but this is the best one in my opinion. Less shredding and tonal experiments than his jazz/avant/creative music projects, but still authentically Nels.

The Mars Volta: "Wax Simulacra." The gospel drums of the newly inducted Thomas Pridgen meets the prog-rock free jazz assault of TMV for their network TV debut. Letterman and the audience probably have no clue what the hell is going on. I recently read a bizarre and scary yet somehow inspiring article in Harp Magazine from late 2006 about TMV's origins. They also made the cover of this month's issue with an interview about the making of The Bedlam in Goliath.

The Hagen Quartet: Ravel's String Quartet, No. 1 in F Major (Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). I studied this composition in college, and it's the reason I stuck with composing. When someone says "string quartet" to me, this is what plays in my head. I love how the opening of the first movement sounds like a tape playing backwards.

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