Violinist John Blake lists smooth jazz guru Grover Washington Jr. and John Coltrane alumnus McCoy Tyner as his first two major stints as a sideman. So he's well-suited to perform that sometimes awkward splice between popular and challenging. On The Traveler, the first self-produced and self-financed album of Blake's lengthy career, he opts for an acoustic quartet that's more mainstream than some recent releases dabbling in funk and electronics. There remains a contemporary feel on what proves to be a solid set of originals, fueled by his strong modern tone and a lively supporting cast.
Blake, 57, a four-time winner of Downbeat 's "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" award and a top finisher in the magazine's readers' polls, considers himself a relative unknown compared to other modern era violinists such as Regina Carter. The Traveler isn't likely to change that, but it's a good listen for those coming across it who like the premise.
His playing often has a familiar-sounding phrasing in the vein of contemporary sax players like Eric Marienthal and Dave Koz, moving around a lot and getting beyond the merely trivial, but not getting overly complex. He keeps his bow in the upper register on the opening "Motherland," wailing moodily within a fairly up-tempo fusion/Latin cradle. A solid bit of more traditional ability follows on "The Tap Dancer," and he bops most rapidly and perhaps best on the closing "Shadower."
Blake's musical voice is the most distinctive, but the most artistic moments may belong to his sidemen. Bassist Boris Koslov excels in splicing a series of straight-ahead passages into a nicely progressive tale on "Born Yesterday" and comes off harmonically smooth as a banana skin on the Latin ballad title track. Pianist Sumi Tonooka is nearly always good with a melodic right hand, feeling like one of those keyboardists who's always the solid number two man in any given small club group. Drummer Johnathan Blake really helps the overall effort by finding creative ways to stay within the fairly limited rhythm canvas he's presented with, and he gets his reward with two minutes to show off his subtle low-volume triggers on the solo "Drum Interlude."
The compositions, like the performances, are generally strong enough to be interesting but seldom awe-inspiring. Nothing feels like a throwaway effort, as shades of Latin, folk, traditional swing and other accents consistently seep their way into a decent mix of pacings and moods within songs. At the same time, there's a bt too much overall sameness in this approach, and individual songs lose their ability to stand out as well as they might as a result.
This isn't a bad introduction to Blake because of its pleasing accessibility, and it certainly ranks above some earlier funk/fusion releases in his discography. But contemporary fans might considering first auditioning his previous Gramavision recordings Twinkling Of An Eye (1985) and A New Beginning (1988) if they are available in order to see if the flavor of either suits them better. For pure artistry, the mellower Kindred Spirits (Spirits, 2000), a duo effort with Tonooka, and Epic Ebony Journey (KNM, 1997), a collaboration with bassist Avery Sharpe featuring some outstanding standards work, may be the best bets of all.
Personnel: John Blake, violin; Sumi Tonooka, piano; Boris Koslov, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.