Up Front and Personal, tenor and soprano saxophonist Ron Blake’s long overdue debut as a leader, exhibits a healthy respect for the jazz tradition and a willingness to step into the future. The disc features Blake and a kinetic rhythm section consisting of pianist Shedrick Mitchell, bassist Reuben Rogers, and the drums and cymbals of Greg Hutchinson. This is an unusually cohesive band in which the members take obvious delight in inspiring one another. Tenor titan Johnny Griffin plays on two tracks (his “Waltswing!,” and Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas”) in which the two saxophonists, rather than engaging in a cutting contest, revel in each others’ musical company and produce stirring solos.
Like all good leaders, Blake gives everyone ample opportunities to express their individual voices. Mitchell is a modern, hard-swinging pianist in the McCoy Tyner mode. Rogers and Hutchinson expertly put an insistent spin on everything from straight-ahead grooves (“Ready or Not” and “Quotatious”), to the Caribbean rhythms of Blake’s “Tom Blake” (written for his father) and “Song for Michael Carvin” (dedicated to the disc’s producer). Rogers has a lovely, full tone that stands out in all of the ensemble passages as well as his solos, and Hutchinson’s turns display logic and order that complement his aggressive stickwork and frequently convoluted rhythms.
Blake’s solos eschew gratuitous displays of chops in favor of the careful, deliberate development of ideas. He interacts with the rhythm section instead of simply playing over it, and always manages to sound relaxed even in the most heated passages. His ballad feature, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “All I Ask Of You,” is a deeply moving performance. Blake’s playing of the melody and solo slowly builds in intensity without breaking the wistful mood, somehow managing to sound both vulnerable and hopeful.
Track List:Ready Or Not; Waltz For Gwen; Waltswing!; Quotatious; Tom Blake; Fried Bananas; All I Ask Of You; Song For Michael Carvin.