A former member of the Lounge Lizards and co-founder of Slow Poke, saxophonist Michael Blake's familiarity with the esoteric is well documented. A restless searcher, Blake's varied discography reaches beyond jazz to include explorations into the traditional folk music of Vietnam and North Africa. The New York-based saxophonist recently delved into his Canadian roots after studying eccentric 19th century Canadian newspaperman / politician William Alexander Smith, who renamed himself Amor De Cosmos.
Amor De Cosmos is Blake's first recording featuring an all-Canadian ensemble. Blake and trumpeter Brad Turner were part of drummer Dylan van der Schyff's recent quintet album The Definition of a Toy (Songlines, 2005). Bassist Andre Lachance is a member of pianist Chris Gestrin's trio with van der Schyff, while Sal Ferreras is an upcoming multifaceted percussionist.
Surprisingly under-sung, Blake's memorable, idiosyncratic writing deftly incorporates contrapuntal melodies and odd time signatures without sacrificing accessibility. Even the 11/8 meter of "The Wash Away," inspired by the late kora master Keba Cissoko, effortlessly supports an airy Africanized theme.
Accenting complex counterpoint with a twinge of humor, Blake's jocular writing makes the knotty twists and turns of "Temporary Constellation," "So Long Seymour" and "Paddy Pie Face" sound perfectly natural. Inspired by Blake's quirky themes, van der Schyff and Lachance's rousing dialogue on the multi-sectional "Paddy Pie Face" is exhilarating. Van der Schyff's thunderous solo on "Temporary Constellation" is an impressive balance between percussive fury and melodic logic.
The cinematic epic "So Long Seymour" incrementally gains steam fueled by a stalwart bass and marimba vamp, eventually hitting a blazing bop stride. Supported by the rhythm section's fluid accompaniment, Blake and Turner each take expressive solos before the tune transforms into a bustling duet between Gestrin and Ferreras. Gestrin strums strings inside his piano while dropping brisk, linear arpeggios outside as Ferreras shadows his every move on marimba. Their conversation gradually deconstructs before the ensemble regroups to reintroduce the theme.
As a soloist, Blake blends a husky, breathy tone with alternate fingerings, yielding a subtle, expressively rich palette. Brad Turner's buttery tone and melodic assuredness make a great front-line foil. His soaring plea on "The Wash Away" is as lofty as his tender meditation on "Infirmary" is earthbound. Sal Ferreras contributes dazzling marimba lines that add a sparkling levity to the session.
Chris Gestrin's pianism ranges from poetic impressionism, as on the gentle ballad, "Infirmary," to the experimental interior manipulations and jagged angles of the mercurial "Temporary Constellation." On the title track he evokes the fulminating Milesian fury of the Dark Prince's early fusion experiments on electric piano, laced with an acerbic wit.
Gestrin and Blake's two free improvisations, "Ghostlines" and "The Hunt" demonstrate their outré interests with freewheeling interplay that incorporates ghostly multiphonics, spectral electronic washes and spare pointillism.
A diverse and appealing record, Amor De Cosmos is an elegant demonstration of Blake's gifts as a writer and improviser, supported by a tight, intuitive ensemble.