With his eyebrows tightly knit, saxophonist Michael Blake played with intensity and assurance, absorbed in the musical moment he created at a recent gig. True to the group's name, Free Association, he led it through the new composition "Conquistador", based on an old Chico Hamilton vamp, to a section of soloing, then spontaneously shifted into "Surfing Sahara" from last year's Elevated (Knitting Factory), before closing with the original tune. The moment exemplified not just the empathy between Blake and his musical cohorts, but also the emotion he plays with and his focus on music.
Whether it's tenor, soprano, or both simultaneously, Blake has developed a distinctive saxophone style characterized by lyrical beauty, breathy notes, and sophisticated technique. Since moving to New York City from his native Montreal, he has made a mark on the New York jazz scene as an in-demand sideman, composer, and bandleader. Playing a stylistic range from the jazz of trumpeter Steven Bernstein, the Herbie Nichols Project, and pianist Richard Bliwas to the rock and pop of the Kate Fenner/Chris Brown Band, DJ Logic, and Tricky, Blake's horns have graced an array of soundscapes.
Throughout August, Blake will be the featured artist-in-residence at the Jazz Standard. Each Monday night, he will present a different ensemble: the Michael Blake Trio, Free Association, the Eulipion Orchestra, and Slow Poke. Together, these ensembles represent the past, present, and perhaps future of Blake's career.
"Every six months I do something - a different project," Blake said. "I just want to change all the time." And from the ensembles that Blake has assembled for the August shows, he has done just that.
The residency commences with a new trio consisting of longtime Blake collaborators - bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard. This trio has performed together in various combinations, notably as part of Allison's Medicine Wheel, but rarely performs as just a trio. Given their history, they could play much of Blake's repertoire, but he intends to compose new music for the show. "Doing new projects is creating new experiences," Blake said.
Blake and Allison are both active in the Jazz Composers Collective, a non-profit, musician-run organization founded by Allison that presents premiere compositions, and the two have developed a strong musical bond. In an e-mail sent just before they left for a European tour, Allison wrote about Blake: "Michael is the type of musician who sees the big picture. I think he's less concerned with 'what' he plays than 'how' he plays. In other words, he 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 (Intuition).
Drift was the successful follow-up to Blake's 1997 debut as a leader, Kingdom of Champa (Intuition), 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. These recordings also revealed the influence that Blake's tenure in the Lounge Lizards had on his own 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 Blake 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, seemingly overnight. It was also with the Lizards that Blake experienced the fickleness of the jazz establishment.
"How could the Lounge Lizards be so singularly ignored by the jazz mainstream?" Blake wonders aloud. "Here's a band that just packed people in for ten years in New York City, without a word." He feels the conservative nature of the jazz industry is part of the problem currently facing artists - especially younger musicians who don't fit the mold. "It's like, come on, guys. They've got to get hip to the fact that they've got to produce a younger image," he said of the mainstream jazz press and labels.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews of his solo CDs, Blake has been the victim of bad timing with record labels the last few years. After the release of Drift, and Elevated - a classic piano quartet that allowed Blake's playing to shine - both labels under-went substantial changes that left his music without promotion and Blake ultimately without a record deal.