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

By Published: October 1, 2003

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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