Following excursions in the worlds of pop, funk and Latin music, saxophonist Ron Blake veers back towards jazz with Shayari, a series of acoustic duets and trios featuring a revolving lineup of A-list sidemen. Mixing up original compositions written or co-written by Blake along with a handful of standards, the album is a varied and well-paced collection of snapshots that capture where the young bandleader's head is currently at.
Blake's natural eclecticism serves him well on Shayari. Each instrumental grouping captures a different mood, with meditative tone poems placed alongside spacious, groove-based jams and sweetly melodic ballads with a Caribbean flavor.
Much credit goes to Blake's main conspirator in the project, Michael Cain. The pianist, who appears on all of the album's tracks, often anchors the improvisations and shapes the contours of each composition, imbuing the divergent selection of strategies, styles and instrumentation with a key consistency.
Modern master Jack DeJohnette is the major source of fire on the five tracks on which he appears. "Atonement, "Hanuman and the two-part "Abhaari find the trio of Blake, Cain and DeJohnette really hitting their stride, sparked by the drummer's darting, boxer-like rhythms, unique time-feel, splintered phrasing and highly personalized aesthetic. Building up a whirlwind of sound, this three-pronged lineup spurs Blake on to his most energetic ideas on the record.
The three tunes that substitute Brazilian percussionist Gilmar Gomes for DeJohnette couldn't be more different, and therefore compliment Shayari's diversity. Gomes supplies a soft, shifting rhythmic bed of atmospheric colors and light, skittering patterns full of pointillistic accents. Like their titles, Cain's "Come Sun and the Ivan Lins classic "The Island evoke calm, tropical environments where Blake can coast on the uncluttered melodies.
This thoughtful demeanor carries over to the two compositions that feature bassist extraordinaire (and Blake employer) Christian McBride. The bass-sax duet on Bobby Hutcherson's "Teddy is a particularly vivid blues treatise that finds McBride's soulful virtuosity in full flower, playfully sparring with Blake's own R&B-inspired phrases.
Special mention goes to violinist Regina Carter, whose single appearance blesses "Of Kindred Souls with her singing blues cry and ebullient swing feel augmented by the plush, opulent frequencies of the European Classical tradition.
The mostly introspective vibe that runs throughout the album may cause the listener to yearn for a little more grittiness, and much of the writing and arrangements are often somewhat less than memorable. Blake's tone, while technically almost flawless, often takes on a thin, pinched quality that perhaps serves him better in pop-oriented situations, but often instills some of the melodies on Shayari with an overly saccharine vibe.
But these are minor qualms, for it's obvious that the rising star saxophonist has serious intentions and solid skills that serve him well on this assortment of poetic, intelligent blowing vehicles, each driven by Blake and given a smooth ride by his esteemed passengers.
Personnel: Ron Blake: tenor saxophone; Michael Cain: piano; Regina Carter: violin (6); Jack DeJohnette: drums (2, 4, 8, 12, 13); Gilmar Gomes: percussion (1, 3, 10); Christian McBride: bass (5, 11).