Jazz man Michael Blake: artist in residence


By Sean Fitzell

An aged, upright piano, covered with sheet music and compact discs, occupies one side of the room. Across the small room is a computer, also covered with music paper, and a tenor saxophone stands in the corner. This is where saxophonist and composer Michael Blake has been busy writing new music and preparing arrangements for an upcoming series of concerts.

Every Monday night in August, Blake, 39, will be the featured artist-in-residence at the Jazz Standard. Each week, he will present a different ensemble: Michael Blake Trio, Free Association, the Eulipion Orchestra, and Slow Poke. Together, these ensembles represent the many sides of Blake’s music and career.

“Every six months I do something—a different project,” Blake said. “I just want to change all the time.”

Since moving to New York City from his native Montreal, Blake has done that and made a mark on the jazz scene as an in-demand sideman, composer, and bandleader.

During his career, Blake has played a stylistic range from the jazz of trumpeter Steven Bernstein or the Herbie Nichols Project to the rock and pop of the Kate Fenner/Chris Brown Band and Tricky. Whether it’s tenor, soprano, or both simultaneously, his distinctive saxophone style shines, characterized by lyrical beauty, breathy notes, and sophisticated technique.

To begin the residency, Blake has assembled a new trio with longtime collaborators — bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard. They have performed together in various combinations, notably as part of Allison’s band Medicine Wheel, but rarely as just a trio. Although they could play much of Blake’s repertoire, given their history, he intends to compose new music for the show. “Doing new projects is creating new experiences,” he said.

Blake and Allison are both active in the Jazz Composers Collective, a non-profit, musician-run organization founded in 1992 by Allison that presents premiere compositions. The two have developed a strong musical bond playing together in multiple bands. In an e-mail sent just before they left for a European tour, Allison wrote that Blake “thinks like a composer, and approaches his improvisations with that in mind—fitting his voice to the tune.”

Allison will be featured the second and third Mondays, with Free Association and the Eulipion Orchestra, respectively. Free Association is Blake’s long-standing collective, which rotates members—from four to as many as eleven—as schedules and the music demands. At the Standard, the group will include trumpeter/reedist Peck Almond, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Matt Wilson, all of whom played on Blake’s 2000 release Drift.

Drift was the successful follow-up to Blake’s 1997 debut as a leader, Kingdom of Champa, a suite of music based on his experiences traveling Vietnam. Both recordings featured large ensembles and dense musical arrangements that showed the breadth of Blake’s compositional language. The recordings also revealed the influence that Blake’s tenure in the Lounge Lizards had on his music—something Blake readily acknowledges.

It was saxophonist John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards that first brought Blake to the attention of the jazz world. For ten years he played to enthusiastic crowds around the world as part of the group and went from being a struggling musician to playing in “one of the coolest bands in the world,” he said.

The music Blake composed for the Eulipion Orchestra also explores dense layers for a large ensemble. It was originally commissioned for a Canadian big band and this will be only the second performance of this material in the US. Blake was pleased with the group’s New York debut during this spring’s Collective series, also at the Standard. For the August 18 gig, he will pull together a 15-piece band that draws players from across the different New York jazz scenes—uptown and downtown.

Blake will end his August residency with a modified version of the beloved band Slow Poke without slide-guitar wizard David Tronzo. “I like the vibe of the band so much, and it won’t be the same without Tronzo, but it’s worth trying out a different line-up,” Blake said about the variation. Instead, Slow Poke bassist Tony Scherr will play guitar, his collaborator Tim Luntzel will fill in on bass, and drummer Kenny Wollesen will round out the band as usual. The original band recorded two CDs, At Home and Redemption, and built a strong following from their frequent appearances at the club Tonic and their relaxed, mellow groove that evoked a late night at a smoky, roadside joint.

For those unfamiliar with Blake, the gigs at Jazz Standard will showcase several, but not all, of his many projects. In the last two years he has also recorded music for projects called Blake Tartare and Mr. Carefree. “I think I’ve written like twenty to twenty-five pieces the last few years and I don’t know if any of it is ever going to get released,” he said. Blake Tartare, a quartet he formed with Danish musicians, exemplified a less structured and more improvisational approach. Conversely, Mr. Carefree explored song-oriented tunes and included a vocalist. It was funded by a grant Blake received from Chamber Music America.

Back in his music room, Blake is developing a new musical language for himself. “I want to try to create a music that is really pushing my self-expression—pushing my music a little more into something that makes me start to articulate more complex things,” he said. As he embarked on his new path, he reflected, “I think the music is ultimately the most important thing and that you just do what music you believe is your thing.”