Distance isn’t supposed to matter for performers anymore. Skype and MP3s, Dropbox, the cloud, YouTube and other digital purveyors make far-flung collaborations as easy as a mouse click. But for musicians who thrive on actually performing in front of audiences the distance between the coasts can feel longer than ever.
Tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, a creative force on the New York jazz scene for the past three decades, makes his Bay Area debut under his own name Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory (he gives a workshop on improvisation earlier in the day). He’s performing with the same prodigious quartet featured on his 2014 album Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside), a cast of bandleader and composers that includes bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Rudy Royston (who played a breathtaking show at Yoshi’s last month with trumpeter Dave Douglas).
Blake isn’t a total stranger to the Bay Area. He played the Elbo Room back in the late 1990s with the revered Downtown roots rock band Slow Poke (featuring slide guitar master Dave Tronzo, bassist Tony Scheer and former Bay Area drummer Kenny Wollesen). And he performed at the 2002 San Francisco Jazz Festival with Allison and Kimbrough in the Herbie Nichols Project (a spinoff of the creatively fecund Jazz Composers Collective). But Blake has never made it out here with his own band before, though he’s forged close bonds with numerous players who hail from Berkeley, particularly slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein.
“It’s been a long time coming,” says Blake, 51. “Steven Bernstein is one of my closest friends, and he was really happy to hear I was doing this out there. It was really a matter of getting those guys to block out the time, and hoping everything falls into place. We’ve got eight straight days of gigs and three workshops. People were so kind and responsive getting back to me about.”
Born in Montreal and raised mostly in Vancouver (he spent some time in San Francisco and Oakland in the late 1960s and early 70s when his father was a publicist for the San Francisco Opera), Blake established himself on the New York scene in the early 1990s as a member of a later incarnation of the Lounge Lizards. Led by pianist Evan Lurie and his brother saxophonist (and later filmmaker) John Lurie, the band served as the nexus for an experimental minded cadre of musicians on Manhattan’s Downtown music scene.
Steven Bernstein joined the Lounge Lizards around the same time, and when Blake launched his first band, the Blaketet, it featured the trumpeter and Ben Allison, a quartet for which he wrote “catchy little songs,” he recalls. “That was a big part of my getting comfortable with being a composer, not feeling pressure to write extended works. I could write little tunes that could flow into each other. We’d be in the middle of something and I give a signal and bang go into the next thing, an idea inspired by John Lurie.”
Blake became something of a cult figure with the release of his 1997 debut album Kingdom of Champa (Intuition), a gloriously orchestrated project inspired by his travels in Vietnam. While hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, the album didn’t land him a major label deal. He ended up pouring a good deal of his creative energy into a succession of Ben Allison ensembles, including the bands Medicine Wheel and Peace Pipe (which both recorded extensively for Palmetto).
“I got tired of trying to beat down those doors for my own projects and Ben had a cool thing going,” Blake says. “We were all having a lot of influence on each other. Everyone had their distinct sound, trumpeter Ron Horton, Frank Kimbrough, Ben and I, and none of our bands sounded the same.
“I’ve never been a bitter, resentful type person, but this is a very hard business,” he continues. “You get through your 30s and 40s, and I’ve done 15 records, and you’ve got to wonder why some things get out there that don’t last. At the same time, people who like your stuff are really loyal. I learned that as well. People who did love my earlier work was really aware I had a voice and a concept.”
With its unmistakable debt to the straight ahead jazz tradition Tiddy Boom is something of a departure for Blake. Created with the support of Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works (a program funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation), the album is a highly personal homage by Blake to tenor saxophone titans Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. For a guy who’s spent his career roving around jazz’s left field, he sounds right at home on an album that puts a premium on swinging.
He just released his latest album, Fulfillment (Songlines), which is part of a trilogy of Canadian themed projects. Working with a large cast of stellar Vancouver improvisers such as cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, he composed a series of pieces reflecting on 100th anniversary of the infamous Komagata Maru incident, when Canada refused to let a Japanese freighter carrying hundreds of Sikhs from British India disembark in Vancouver. In researching the event, Blake discovered that his great grand uncle H.H. Stevens, a Conservative member of Parliament, declared at a public meeting, “I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one great principle – of a white country and a white British Columbia.”
“They left them out in the harbor for all summer, and they all had to go back to India,” Blake says. “They were considered rebels against the British, and some were killed upon their arrival. I felt like writing an album of atonement, offering a musical perspective. At the same time all this stuff in Syria and North Africa made it more about this process of immigration and assimilation and acceptance.”
Recommended gigs: Lost Trio / Akira Tana
The ever-inventive Lost Trio, a collective ensemble featuring drummer Tom Hassett, bassist Dan Seamans, and saxophonist Phillip Greenleaf, returns once again to the bottomless well of inspiration that is Thelonious Sphere Monk. The group plays six tunes by Monk and six originals at the California Jazz Conservatory 8 p.m. Saturday. Also Saturday, drum maestro Akira Tana’s ensemble Otonowa with saxophonist/shakuhachi player Masaru Koga, bassist Ken Okada, pianist Art Hirahara and guest vocalist Saki Kono performs at the Brower Center as part of Tohoku Springs Back!: A Fundraiser Celebrating 5 Years of Positive Change in Tohoku, Japan. They’ve honed a singular body of music based on traditional (and more contemporary Japanese) tunes interpreted through the lens of jazz.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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