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