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Elevate Me: Michael Blake's New York World-Jazz

By Published: October 1, 2003

I?ve enjoyed breaking down those little worlds and getting people from all over New York together to play.

Imagine Duke Ellington's orchestra swinging by camelback caravan through the marketplace of Tangier, Morocco, or Miles Davis and crew funky-tonkin' up the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, and you'll get an idea of what saxophonist and composer Michael Blake's approach to jazz is.

Blake, who plays this year's JVC Jazz Festival - New York on June 24 with Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel, takes the tenors of Ben Webster and Lester Young as pivot points, particularly in the world-jazz exploration of Elevated, Blake's latest CD. His compositions range from the classic swing of 'Lady Red' to the Afro-funk of 'Toque,' both on Blake's 2000 CD, Drift, whose songs are at once sophisticated and accessible.

Elevated, on Knitting Factory Records, is an Arabian-flavored journey through world-fusion. If such music in 2003 enjoyed the kind of popularity it had in the 1960s, when Getz, Byrd and Jobim had hit albums with their mix of Afro-Latin and straight-ahead jazz, Michael Blake would be a household name.

You won't find any of Blake's discs in the Billboard 200, though. Still, the New York-based musician is busy composing music and continues to find live outlets for his art. He was a key player in the third-annual Jazz Composers Collective (JCC) Festival, held in March at the Jazz Standard club in New York. Blake, a JCC composer-in-residence, headed up his Elevated Quartet and directed the Eulipion Orchestra, a recent undertaking with a wide range of fellow New York jazz musicians. He also plays out frequently with slide-trumpeter Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra, who next take the stage at the Jazz Standard on June 23 and June 30.

During his career Blake certainly has built a solid reputation within the jazz community. He joined John Lurie's Lounge Lizards in 1990 and worked with the group for a decade. He regularly collaborates with Ben Allison, another JCC composer-in-residence who doubles as the collective's artistic director: The two perform in Allison's ground-breaking JCC groups Peace Pipe and Medicine Wheel as well as the celebrated Herbie Nichols Project (Blake tours Europe in July with the Herbie Nichols Project and Peace Pipe). Teo Macero, best-known for producing Miles Davis's In a Silent Way, twirled the knobs for Blake's 1997 debut album, Kingdom of Champa, which Blake said was inspired by a trip to Vietnam.

Blake shared his thoughts, by telephone and e-mail, from his Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, home on his music, touching on such heroes as Lucky Thompson as well as living collaborators, including Bernstein and fellow JCC saxophonist Ted Nash. He also discussed his frustrations with marketing his art and the occasionally puzzling nature of how the press covers jazz.

All About Jazz: How did you get interested in music, in jazz?

Michael Blake: I started out goofing around on the piano. It wasn't until I got a clarinet that I got really into jazz music. I was about 14, 15 then. I sort of lost interest in playing the clarinet for a while, then picked it up again at 17 and started on saxophone. What really piqued my interest was reading a biography of John Coltrane, even before I really heard his music. My brother had a great collection of his records, so I started digging into them. That really hit me, I really emulated him for a while, I didn't even try to find a voice. I didn't really listen to anything but Coltrane for about five years.

AAJ: What led you away from the more eclectic sound of Drift, which touched on Miles-style fusion, to the more straight-ahead sound of your latest CD, Elevated, which seems to owe something to Johnny Hodges?

MB: All of my records cover a wide variety of sonic space. Elevated happens to be a production that captures the 'classic' quartet sound I hadn't documented before. The response has been great; people are moved, delighted and excited by the mood and lyricism I was aiming for.

I think Lester Young is a better comparison than Johnny Hodges ' also Ben Webster and Lucky Thompson; 'Lucky Charms' is for him. On tenor I tried to find a bond between the Coltrane cry and the deliberate cool of Prez. On soprano I think I proved that there is another kind of tone to get, not the oboe-Indian whine but a round, sweet tone like Lucky had.

If you listened to Kingdom of Champa, my first release, you would know what a restless soul I am. I love the entire history of jazz, from New Orleans, polyphonic swing through the most avant-garde shit ever made. I hate writing and playing one style. It's not my thing to do that.

AAJ: It seems to me that your music is very accessible, very tuneful. Why is jazz that isn't by a 'big name' or isn't strictly traditional such a hard sell?

MB: When you record a tune such as 'Lady Red' [from Drift ], a tip of the hat to Ellington and that style of writing, it's orchestrated, it's catchy as hell, it has so much going for it, [it's] not even particularly angular or dissonant. Why isn't this something that's recognized as enjoyable, and therefore it becomes more popular as a result?

Elevated, it's a pretty inside record. We did it in a day because of our budget. I got a certain tone, and I wanted to keep that. I think the Knitting Factory could have made a really good effort to get that to the radio. I produced it myself and I sold it to the Knit at about the same time they sold off the record-label business. They are run now by a company called Instinct, which doesn't have much interest in jazz records so far as I could tell. It got a lot more distribution than Drift [though].

Drift was named 'Best CD of 2000' in Jazz thing [a German jazz magazine]; I thought the record company would use that. If I won the critics poll in Down Beat, it would have been sufficient to get me management. My confidence has been waning and my wife and I have been talking about this, because she's never seen me so broken. I'm trying to get my spirit up, that's why I did the work with the [Eulipion] orchestra. I love music, I love to play for people, but I'm 39; I'm not where I want to be. I guess you just keep trying.

AAJ: So you're feeling frustrated that you put out some really solid albums and they weren't recognized like you thought they deserved?

MB: Yes. It goes back to when I put out Kingdom of Champa. I thought it was really connected with the history I had with the Lounge Lizards. Teo Macero produced it and he loved it, he was so honored to be a part of it. Down Beat didn't even review it, and it had a cast of really great New York musicians: Dave Tronzo, Thomas Chapin, Steven Bernstein, Marcus Rojas, Billy Martin's on there. When that got buried and blown off by the press, I realized either you've got the lucky horseshoes'. Some people ' the quality of their work is really mediocre, and it's either they're established or they're the right age'.

AAJ: I heard Peter Cincotti on late-night television; I didn't even think he was a very good singer, but he's getting a huge publicity push.

MB: I mean, could we get more Eisenhower? It was more like cabaret, I mean please don't call it 'jazz.' Norah Jones ' I know the guys on the record, they know they're not playing jazz, they're playing good pop music, and it is good. She likes country, she's got roots. Cincotti, I don't know what that is. It's harder for men as singers.

AAJ: It seems there's a lot more obscurity in jazz than there was. Artists have a harder time getting recognition today than John Coltrane did.

MB: I think it's always been a real collectors-kind-of-audience. There are a lot of things making it real difficult for current artists, younger artists to sell. How can you compete, with a new record that's 15 or 20 dollars, when people can buy Miles Smiles for 11 or 12 dollars?

It's like the 'Ken Burns Jazz' thing: What happened to Carla Bley, the great Keith Jarrett quartet records with Dewey Redman, people whose writing and focus on composition was showing some brightness, pushing it to the future? In the '80s so many of those guys were eclipsed by the bebop nazis and just bad records. Carla Bley said she can't really afford to tour America with her mini-big-band.

Wynton played on Ted's [Nash's] new record. It's funny and kind of ironic in a way that Frank Kimbrough is on a record with Wynton Marsalis. When it comes to music, there are no 'issues.' In New York there's so many cliques, but sometimes people are really getting pulled together, especially in large ensembles such as the Eulipion Orchestra. I've enjoyed breaking down those little worlds and getting people from all over New York together to play.

AAJ: Who are some examples of saxophonists you admire today? Who inspires you to keep playing jazz despite your reservations?

MB: I think Joe Lovano has been a huge influence on a lot of saxophone players right now in a positive way, in a linear, chromatic way, the post-Coltrane style of Steve Grossman and Bob Berg. People started getting a warmer sound, a less pinched, hard sound [after Lovano's success]. I hear players from Sweden and just all over who are doing interesting things. I'm constantly blown away by Ted Nash. It's nice to see Ted getting into the [Village] Vanguard. I mean I'm not in awe of him, [but] he's an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist, a real musician's musician and also a great writer.

I don't really keep up with the Joneses, you know? If I put on music, it's gonna be sort of one of the older guys, one of those masters: Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, Lucky Thompson. I do try to seek out new inspiration. I find that just working keeps you inspired and focused, just playing all the time and constantly getting new ideas.

AAJ: I enjoyed hearing the Eulipion Orchestra at the JCC Festival. Would you talk a little about that?

MB: It's a big band with the basic reeds, brass and rhythm lineup. I describe it as a mix of Ellington's The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, Gil Evans's The Individualism of..., Quincy Jones's Gulu Matari and Yusef Lateef's The Centaur and the Phoenix ' exciting, beautiful, original music. I put together musicians from all over the New York jazz scene, including Steven Bernstein ' Steven is a dear friend ' Briggan Krauss, Ted Nash of Lincoln Center, and the JCC cats Frank [Kimbrough] on piano and Ben [Allison] on bass.

AAJ: Was the March performance at the Jazz Standard the premiere of the group?

MB: Yes. I did a couple of the charts in Canada [for a recent engagement in Vancouver, British Columbia), but with that band, definitely. The Eulipion thing, to do a live record from the Jazz Standard for that would be really great.

AAJ: What is working with Ben Allison, who brings a vigor and freshness into integrating jazz and world music, like?

MB: Ben is a very bright light in jazz today. He's incredibly organized and very creative. We're old friends and love throwing tunes at each other. I write with him in mind, his use of alternate techniques and just that big, bouncy tone he gets! Our positive energy is so refreshing on the bandstand. We genuinely love playing together.

Ben hadn't explored many world-music textures until after I made Kingdom of Champa. He has a classical tinge in his writing. He had just released Seven Arrows and The Herbie Nichols Project [in 1996], and then Champa came out, and he said to me: 'Man, your CD is so different! I need to try using different instruments and combinations and production ideas.' The next year he started writing for Medicine Wheel.

AAJ: I just saw Ken Butler at an art gallery in Williamsburg [Brooklyn]. He makes his own instruments out of tennis racquets, ski poles and so on. It was a phenomenal show. Do you feed off the local scene?

MB: I really focus in on the people whom I hire to do a gig. In every band, I go for personalities. It was funny writing for these guys in Canada; I kept visualizing these New York guys playing it! The guys in Canada hit all the right notes, but I felt, if they could just put some passion into it'. The guys in Vancouver were really overworked, I didn't have the time to get a rapport. In New York I didn't even need to get a rapport. The musicians start playing and they just nailed it, they put so much fire into it. I'm really lucky I live in this town because these guys are so good. It's good to be amongst them.

Ben recently got nominated for 'Jazz Composer of the Year' by the Jazz Journalists Association in New York. He's in there with Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter; he just felt like it was ridiculous. I said, 'You're really representing all of us, you founded the JCC.' It's great to see that, it's encouraging.

AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MB: I was playing with Steven [Bernstein] in the Millennial Territory Orchestra at the Jazz Standard. It's '20s and '30s music mixed in with rocked-out grooves and free improvisation, really an ancient-to-the-future concept. The bartender said, 'That's really great, what do you call it?' Steven said, 'Well what do you want to call it?' 'It's kind of like New Orleans, but kind of crazy.' 'Well then call it crazy-New Orleans music.' [Laughs.] He didn't want to scare her away from 'jazz.' You know, call it what you want.

Photo Exhibit

CD Reviews
Elevated (2002)
Drift: 1 | 2 (2001)
Redemption (2000)

Related Article
Did Anyone Make Out to Archie Shepp?: Michael Blake and the Quandry of Jazz Writing

Photo Exhibit Credit
Claudio Casanova


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