Ron Blake's MUSIC T'REE Flourishes Across Genres
“ Lately, I've really been into writing simple melodies. Sometimes there's nothing as nice as a beautiful melody. ”
A radio host throws on one of Ron Blake's discs ' perhaps his latest effort for Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records, Lest We Forget. Chances are - you dig. But who was that? Many of you have seen or heard this saxophonist live or on record, but there is no name to go with a sound. Don't write him off. This cat is the choice reedman for such artists as Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, and Art Farmer.
Blake was the name on the marquis (or in this case plastered to the door leading up to Twins Jazz) in early March when Blake headlined a group coined the Music T'REE (perhaps a pun - go figure). This all-star band included the core members of his current high profile gig with McBride ' bassist Christian McBride, drummer Terreon Gully, and the ever imaginative M-BASE collaborator ' guitarist David Gilmore. Both sets on Saturday night at Twins, packed the long narrow venue as audiences were treated to a host of styles reflecting Blake's heritage and diversity of musical tastes. From a reggae vamp to a sax-arco bass duet of 'Pure Imagination' (from the motion picture Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka), Blake and his fellow band mates really jived with an audience of all ages.
A native of the island of St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), Blake grew up playing guitar and alto saxophone initially drawing influence from his father's sizeable jazz collection. Blake came to the U.S. as a junior in high school to study music at the renowned Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Subsequently, the saxophonist attended Northwestern University studying alto saxophone with the famed classical saxophonist Fred Hemke. While on the Chicago scene, Blake witnessed a host of jazz musicians including Von Freeman, Wilbur Campbell, and Willie Pickens who brought the young artist up on stage as a musical rite of passage. It was during this time that he started playing tenor saxophone and had the opportunity to freelance with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and back up such stars as Nancy Wilson, Louis Bellson, and Clark Terry.
In 1987 while teaching young musicians at a summer camp in the Virgin Islands, he had the opportunity to sit in with Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, and the late Dizzy Gillespie at the Virgin Islands Jazz Festival. He notes this concert as a major turning point in his career. After college, Blake would receive an NEA grant to study with Bartz.
In 1992 after a two-year stint as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida, Blake made the move to New York. Upon his arrival he joined Roy Hargrove's band playing tenor and soprano with the group until 1997. Blake appears on Hargrove's Of Kindred Souls (1993), With the Tenors of Our Time (1993), Approaching Standards (1994), Family (1995), and a 1998 Hargrove sampler. While with Hargrove, Blake was also a member of hard bopper Art Farmer's quintet, appearing on Farmer's Company I Keep (1994), Meaning of Art (1995), and Silk Road (1996).
In 2000, Blake replaced tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr. in McBride's band appearing on the critically acclaimed Sci-Fi (2000) and Vertical Vision (2003). Prior to becoming a member of McBride's band Blake recorded with such artists as Marc Cary, Stephen Scott, Benny Golson, Dianne Reeves, Tony Reedus and Clarence Penn, and one of his childhood idols ' Jimmy Smith.
We spoke in the cozy environs of the Crowne Plaza Hotel restaurant, where Blake was getting in a quick meal and a nap before the gig. As cool winds bitterly blew outside, he sipped on warm soup before moving on to a large open-faced chicken sandwich with mushrooms and avocados. It was difficult to keep my mind on the interview, but I persevered.
'It's so different taking your own group out on the road than being a sideman,' remarked Blake. 'There's so much you're doing as a leader. With this kind of [short] trip, I am my own road manager'I have some people helping me organize stuff but it's mostly me.' That day besides meeting up with friends and family, Blake and his band headed over to XM Satellite Radio's studios to lay down some tracks to be broadcast on Maxx Myrick's Real Jazz station in late March and early April (Blake has already been featured on XM's competitor, Sirius. Looks like Mr. Blake has a busy publicist. Blake was smart enough and lucky to have brought band-mates who are close friends and weren't there solely intent on getting paid and going home. Everything's 'all good' with Blake. Just being around the guy puts you at ease. You could say he's got an island feel to him, mahn.
All joking aside, some of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Blake included details of his family life growing up on the island of St. Thomas. 'My father was an architect and my mom was in social work for much of her life.' Blake is the youngest of four children but the only musician of the bunch. 'My siblings have a wide range of musical tastes.' He says he is always impressed by what they are listening to and they often share music with each other.