Elevate Me: Michael Blake's New York World-Jazz

Todd R. Brown By

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I?ve enjoyed breaking down those little worlds and getting people from all over New York together to play.
Imagine Duke Ellington's orchestra swinging by camelback caravan through the marketplace of Tangier, Morocco, or Miles Davis and crew funky-tonkin' up the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, and you'll get an idea of what saxophonist and composer Michael Blake's approach to jazz is.

Blake, who plays this year's JVC Jazz Festival - New York on June 24 with Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel, takes the tenors of Ben Webster and Lester Young as pivot points, particularly in the world-jazz exploration of Elevated, Blake's latest CD. His compositions range from the classic swing of 'Lady Red' to the Afro-funk of 'Toque,' both on Blake's 2000 CD, Drift, whose songs are at once sophisticated and accessible.

Elevated, on Knitting Factory Records, is an Arabian-flavored journey through world-fusion. If such music in 2003 enjoyed the kind of popularity it had in the 1960s, when Getz, Byrd and Jobim had hit albums with their mix of Afro-Latin and straight-ahead jazz, Michael Blake would be a household name.

You won't find any of Blake's discs in the Billboard 200, though. Still, the New York-based musician is busy composing music and continues to find live outlets for his art. He was a key player in the third-annual Jazz Composers Collective (JCC) Festival, held in March at the Jazz Standard club in New York. Blake, a JCC composer-in-residence, headed up his Elevated Quartet and directed the Eulipion Orchestra, a recent undertaking with a wide range of fellow New York jazz musicians. He also plays out frequently with slide-trumpeter Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra, who next take the stage at the Jazz Standard on June 23 and June 30.

During his career Blake certainly has built a solid reputation within the jazz community. He joined John Lurie's Lounge Lizards in 1990 and worked with the group for a decade. He regularly collaborates with Ben Allison, another JCC composer-in-residence who doubles as the collective's artistic director: The two perform in Allison's ground-breaking JCC groups Peace Pipe and Medicine Wheel as well as the celebrated Herbie Nichols Project (Blake tours Europe in July with the Herbie Nichols Project and Peace Pipe). Teo Macero, best-known for producing Miles Davis's In a Silent Way, twirled the knobs for Blake's 1997 debut album, Kingdom of Champa, which Blake said was inspired by a trip to Vietnam.

Blake shared his thoughts, by telephone and e-mail, from his Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, home on his music, touching on such heroes as Lucky Thompson as well as living collaborators, including Bernstein and fellow JCC saxophonist Ted Nash. He also discussed his frustrations with marketing his art and the occasionally puzzling nature of how the press covers jazz.

All About Jazz: How did you get interested in music, in jazz?

Michael Blake: I started out goofing around on the piano. It wasn't until I got a clarinet that I got really into jazz music. I was about 14, 15 then. I sort of lost interest in playing the clarinet for a while, then picked it up again at 17 and started on saxophone. What really piqued my interest was reading a biography of John Coltrane, even before I really heard his music. My brother had a great collection of his records, so I started digging into them. That really hit me, I really emulated him for a while, I didn't even try to find a voice. I didn't really listen to anything but Coltrane for about five years.

AAJ: What led you away from the more eclectic sound of Drift, which touched on Miles-style fusion, to the more straight-ahead sound of your latest CD, Elevated, which seems to owe something to Johnny Hodges?

MB: All of my records cover a wide variety of sonic space. Elevated happens to be a production that captures the 'classic' quartet sound I hadn't documented before. The response has been great; people are moved, delighted and excited by the mood and lyricism I was aiming for.

I think Lester Young is a better comparison than Johnny Hodges ' also Ben Webster and Lucky Thompson; 'Lucky Charms' is for him. On tenor I tried to find a bond between the Coltrane cry and the deliberate cool of Prez. On soprano I think I proved that there is another kind of tone to get, not the oboe-Indian whine but a round, sweet tone like Lucky had.

If you listened to Kingdom of Champa, my first release, you would know what a restless soul I am. I love the entire history of jazz, from New Orleans, polyphonic swing through the most avant-garde shit ever made. I hate writing and playing one style. It's not my thing to do that.

AAJ: It seems to me that your music is very accessible, very tuneful. Why is jazz that isn't by a 'big name' or isn't strictly traditional such a hard sell?

MB: When you record a tune such as 'Lady Red' [from Drift ], a tip of the hat to Ellington and that style of writing, it's orchestrated, it's catchy as hell, it has so much going for it, [it's] not even particularly angular or dissonant. Why isn't this something that's recognized as enjoyable, and therefore it becomes more popular as a result?

Elevated, it's a pretty inside record. We did it in a day because of our budget. I got a certain tone, and I wanted to keep that. I think the Knitting Factory could have made a really good effort to get that to the radio. I produced it myself and I sold it to the Knit at about the same time they sold off the record-label business. They are run now by a company called Instinct, which doesn't have much interest in jazz records so far as I could tell. It got a lot more distribution than Drift [though].

Drift was named 'Best CD of 2000' in Jazz thing [a German jazz magazine]; I thought the record company would use that. If I won the critics poll in Down Beat, it would have been sufficient to get me management. My confidence has been waning and my wife and I have been talking about this, because she's never seen me so broken. I'm trying to get my spirit up, that's why I did the work with the [Eulipion] orchestra. I love music, I love to play for people, but I'm 39; I'm not where I want to be. I guess you just keep trying.

AAJ: So you're feeling frustrated that you put out some really solid albums and they weren't recognized like you thought they deserved?

MB: Yes. It goes back to when I put out Kingdom of Champa. I thought it was really connected with the history I had with the Lounge Lizards. Teo Macero produced it and he loved it, he was so honored to be a part of it. Down Beat didn't even review it, and it had a cast of really great New York musicians: Dave Tronzo, Thomas Chapin, Steven Bernstein, Marcus Rojas, Billy Martin's on there. When that got buried and blown off by the press, I realized either you've got the lucky horseshoes'. Some people ' the quality of their work is really mediocre, and it's either they're established or they're the right age'.

AAJ: I heard Peter Cincotti on late-night television; I didn't even think he was a very good singer, but he's getting a huge publicity push.

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