Michael Blake's Hellbent, Earshot Jazz event at Tula's


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Michael Blake's Hellbent
Tula's Jazz Club
Seattle, WA
February 24, 2007

Michael Blake last played in Seattle during the 2002 Earshot Jazz Festival with The Herbie Nichols Project, a group spawned by The Jazz Composers Collective. This reviewer covered the Nichols show for Coda magazine (Issue 309, May/June 2003). Let's hope that the wait between performances won't be quite so long next time.

Originally from Montreal, Quebec, Canada—he was born there on May 19, 1964—Blake has been a vital contributor to the new music scene in the New York City metro area for nearly two decades now. In addition to his association with JCC, including Ben Allison's Medicine Wheel and Peace Pipe groups, he is co-founder of Slow Poke (with slide guitarist David Tronzo, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen). Another group, Blake Tartare with Danes Kresten Osgood, Soren Kjaergaard and Jonas Westergaard has received widespread acclaim. A trio with bassist Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard has recorded for Clean Feed and toured Europe. Blake recently premiered a new ensemble dedicated to the music of legendary and perennially underrated saxophonist/composer Lucky Thompson at NYC's Jazz Standard; a recording of this group is slated for release soon according to Blake. We can now add Hellbent to the list of his notable groups.

Although elsewhere he plays soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, with Hellbent (at least on this occasion) Blake concentrated his attention strictly on the tenor saxophone. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet and trumpet, and Calvin Weston at the drum kit, Hellbent has a distinctive and original aural palette.

Hellbent opened with a Blake original, "Mr. John, which was inspired by the recently departed master saxophonist Dewey Redman. After playing the piece, he explained in an engaging little story that Redman, when he was coming up, asked John Coltrane "How do you do that, Mr. John? Blake's tenor evoked both Redman and Coltrane at times but was far from slavish imitation. There was a deep river of emotion and spirituality in the feeling of the composition that reminded me of a traditional spiritual, particularly in the reflective rubato beginning. Rojas tapped the body of his instrument with his right hand at several points, adding a percussive dimension to wind and brass. Bernstein was on the standard trumpet for this selection and took an excellent solo that led things up and "out for an intense climax with an Ayler-esque spirit.

Blake's "Flip was next, a tune inspired by Bernstein's wacky, wonderful Sex Mob group. At first it was a tuba/drums duo, laying down a ferocious groove with ecstatic shouts from Weston, before the full quartet kicked in. Bernstein's trumpet solo displayed the combination of humor and deep emotion that he is justly noted for; you can guarantee that any time he takes part in a group the results will be both well-crafted and crafty. Rojas laid down such a fiery, intense rhythmic carpet that the bandstand at Tula's practically levitated. Blake took a scorching tenor solo spurred on by Weston's vocal exhortations and percussive juggernaut. A tuba/drums break led to a remarkable unaccompanied solo from the tubist. His use of multiphonics at tiimes conjured up the mental image of a whole brass section. A deep pulse was evident even though the solo was "free. During one astonishing segment he utilized breath and embouchure only without keying for what was a truly a breathtaking solo. The ensemble returned to take it out with the original infectious bass vamp from Rojas gluing it all together: a powerful performance.

An as yet untitled ballad written for Blake's dad began with delightfully understated soft mallet work from Weston. The tenor solo combined wistfulness and muscularity in a manner reminiscent of Lucky Thompson, whom Blake has cited as a major inspiration on more than one occasion. Although I hear more of Lucky's imprint in Blake's soprano work, the gorgeous, full-bodied tone and audacious yet focused ideas in the tenor playing here also evoked echoes of Thompson and other past masters. Bernstein was on slide trumpet: his breath control and spot-on intonation were impressive as his solo began in a thoughtful manner, eventually segueing seamlessly to a more cathartic denouement.

Duke Ellington's "Wig Wise —originally recorded by Mr. Ellington with Charles Mingus and Max Roach on the classic Money Jungle album—began with a cappella tenor before tuba then drum interjections joined in. The stop-time breaks were very cool. Blake's tenor solo was earthy, bluesy and particularly engaging in the lower registers of the horn. Weston was thunder and lightning throughout. Bernstein's slide trumpet solo stretched the form through a myriad of extreme timbre manipulations, but one could always hear the skeleton of "Wig Wise supporting it all. The energy and humor of this performance brought the first set to a joyful, swinging end.

After the break, a tune written by Kresten Osgood—the drummer in Blake Tartare—built and built from an unaccompanied tenor intro, then tuba, then slide trumpet and finally drums. Bernstein took a heated slide solo followed by Blake, who broke up the bar lines in intriguing ways, with teasing, tugging rhythmic displacements backed only by Weston. This segment was a bit Ornette-ish in an oblique sort of way. When Rojas came back in Weston had hollers and driving kit rhythms to goose the full quartet back into action. The drummer's solo was heavy on toms and hard on sticks (a spent one went flying into the audience). He has a volcanic style that is brawny, busy and energizing without being bombastic. The transition back to the closing ensemble was stop-on-a-dime perfection. After playing the tune Blake told a witty story about Osgood and a Danish "reality TV show where five kids choose cards picturing musical instruments and by the end of the show play a piece of music on the instruments they drew at random. Bernstein quipped: "That's what happens when you don't have a standing Army!

"Flipper from the Blake Tartare book was next. It began in a rather melancholy mood with Blake's melodically inventive tenor accompanied mainly by only Rojas, with the tenorist's creative sub-tone musings and low-register poetry telling a compelling story. The dolorous, dirge-like theme resurfaced with the tuba moving into its highest register as the piece picked up steam, Weston driving with a vengeance as a tempo was established (in six?) Bernstein took a fine trumpet solo that was similarly driving and rhythmically impetuous. As Rojas began his solo he appeared to be "conversing with the sounds filtering in from the kitchen and from behind the bar. In the course of this solo he used pretty much everything at his disposal— percussion on the horn's keys and body, voice, embouchure, breath—as he careened along on a hilarious and virtuosic joy-ride, aided and abetted by Weston's yells of encouragement.

Blake assured us that we'd recognize the final piece in the set. Well, maybe... It certainly sounded familiar but I couldn't place it. Taken at a blistering up-tempo, it featured an incendiary tenor solo packed with imaginative thematic improvisation that seemed akin to Sonny Rollins at his best (hmmm, a Newk tune?) Bernstein's slide solo was wild and woolly, a talking-in-tongues extravaganza. And there was a canny tuba/ drums break: very tasty.

Catch this group in performance if you can. They're hell bent on having fun and creating music that speaks to the heart and soul as well as to the body and mind.

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