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]