Saxophonist Ron Blake has everything he needs to be a rising star on the jazz scene. He seems intelligent, he has chops for days, and his bald head/weird beard thing is an extremely marketable look. Blake is adventurous enough, which he proves by including a remix disc in the CD package. He even has famous friends like Me'shell NdegeOcello to produce his album. There's just one thing he might not have yetbut we'll get to that in a second.
Let's focus on the positive. Blake's tone on tenor sax is pure and true; he is capable of gliding through ballads like "Pissarro's Floor" and punching through up-tempo numbers like "Tom Blake" while still sounding like himself. He might be a little too much in love with smooth jazz, turning interesting compositions like "Shades of Brown" into dentist-room fodder, but he is good enough as a stylist that it doesn't really offend the ears to hear him stretch out in a mellow way. And he's tough enough to take on "The Windmills of Your Mind" without sounding apologetic or tentative about it.
The most exciting things on Sonic Tonic are the hybrid songs, where Blake incorporates his West Indian heritage with other forms of music. The title track feels like ska, but it has some credible wah-wah funk from David Gilmore happening too. "Tom Blake" pulls in the Cuban side of the Caribbean, and it also allows Josh Roseman the latitude to pull off a wildly enjoyable trombone solo. And the two great takes of "Invocation" are worth mentioning, because they are majestic and multicolored, Latin and reggae-ish, and funky and modal all at once. They could be the blueprint for Ron Blake's next phase.
If, of course, there is a next phase. Because what I'm not sure of, after listening to this album several times, is whether or not Blake has any real ideas underneath the surface. Is all this style-jockeying part of a grand vision, or is it just to throw us off the scent? I'm guessing the former, but only time will tell. It's going to be fun watching Blake's career and trying to find out.
Personnel: Ron Blake (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute); Michael Cain
(piano, keyboards); Christian McBride (bass); Chris Dave
(drums); Terreon Gully (drums); David Gilmore (guitar); Reuben
Rogers (electric bass); Josh Roseman (trombone); Gilmar
Gomes (percussion); Vincent Chauncey (french horn); Marcus
Rojas (tuba); Sean Jones (flugelhorn); Greg Hutchinson
(drums); Pedro Martinez (congas)