A radio host throws on one of Ron Blake's discs ' perhaps his latest effort for Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records, Lest We Forget
. Chances are - you dig. But who was that? Many of you have seen or heard this saxophonist live or on record, but there is no name to go with a sound. Don't write him off. This cat is the choice reedman for such artists as Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, and Art Farmer.
Blake was the name on the marquis (or in this case plastered to the door leading up to Twins Jazz) in early March when Blake headlined a group coined the Music T'REE (perhaps a pun - go figure). This all-star band included the core members of his current high profile gig with McBride ' bassist Christian McBride, drummer Terreon Gully, and the ever imaginative M-BASE collaborator ' guitarist David Gilmore. Both sets on Saturday night at Twins, packed the long narrow venue as audiences were treated to a host of styles reflecting Blake's heritage and diversity of musical tastes. From a reggae vamp to a sax-arco bass duet of 'Pure Imagination' (from the motion picture Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka), Blake and his fellow band mates really jived with an audience of all ages.
A native of the island of St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), Blake grew up playing guitar and alto saxophone initially drawing influence from his father's sizeable jazz collection. Blake came to the U.S. as a junior in high school to study music at the renowned Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Subsequently, the saxophonist attended Northwestern University studying alto saxophone with the famed classical saxophonist Fred Hemke. While on the Chicago scene, Blake witnessed a host of jazz musicians including Von Freeman, Wilbur Campbell, and Willie Pickens who brought the young artist up on stage as a musical rite of passage. It was during this time that he started playing tenor saxophone and had the opportunity to freelance with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and back up such stars as Nancy Wilson, Louis Bellson, and Clark Terry.
In 1987 while teaching young musicians at a summer camp in the Virgin Islands, he had the opportunity to sit in with Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, and the late Dizzy Gillespie at the Virgin Islands Jazz Festival. He notes this concert as a major turning point in his career. After college, Blake would receive an NEA grant to study with Bartz.
In 1992 after a two-year stint as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida, Blake made the move to New York. Upon his arrival he joined Roy Hargrove's band playing tenor and soprano with the group until 1997. Blake appears on Hargrove's Of Kindred Souls (1993), With the Tenors of Our Time (1993), Approaching Standards (1994), Family (1995), and a 1998 Hargrove sampler. While with Hargrove, Blake was also a member of hard bopper Art Farmer's quintet, appearing on Farmer's Company I Keep (1994), Meaning of Art (1995), and Silk Road (1996).
In 2000, Blake replaced tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr. in McBride's band appearing on the critically acclaimed Sci-Fi (2000) and Vertical Vision (2003). Prior to becoming a member of McBride's band Blake recorded with such artists as Marc Cary, Stephen Scott, Benny Golson, Dianne Reeves, Tony Reedus and Clarence Penn, and one of his childhood idols ' Jimmy Smith.
We spoke in the cozy environs of the Crowne Plaza Hotel restaurant, where Blake was getting in a quick meal and a nap before the gig. As cool winds bitterly blew outside, he sipped on warm soup before moving on to a large open-faced chicken sandwich with mushrooms and avocados. It was difficult to keep my mind on the interview, but I persevered.
'It's so different taking your own group out on the road than being a sideman,' remarked Blake. 'There's so much you're doing as a leader. With this kind of [short] trip, I am my own road manager'I have some people helping me organize stuff but it's mostly me.' That day besides meeting up with friends and family, Blake and his band headed over to XM Satellite Radio's studios to lay down some tracks to be broadcast on Maxx Myrick's Real Jazz station in late March and early April (Blake has already been featured on XM's competitor, Sirius. Looks like Mr. Blake has a busy publicist. Blake was smart enough and lucky to have brought band-mates who are close friends and weren't there solely intent on getting paid and going home. Everything's 'all good' with Blake. Just being around the guy puts you at ease. You could say he's got an island feel to him, mahn.
All joking aside, some of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Blake included details of his family life growing up on the island of St. Thomas. 'My father was an architect and my mom was in social work for much of her life.' Blake is the youngest of four children but the only musician of the bunch. 'My siblings have a wide range of musical tastes.' He says he is always impressed by what they are listening to and they often share music with each other.
When asked if he is the only Caribbean cat on the New York scene he replies with a contorted facial expression as he spreads some sause of his sandwich. The musicians he went on to mention were all fellow Virgin Islanders. Included in his short list: drummer Dion Parsons, a drummer who appears as a co-leader with Blake on 21st Century (1998), Blake's debut as a leader on the Tahmun label, bassist Ruben Rogers (also on 21st Century , and trumpeter Rashawn Ross, an up-and-comer who appears on a few tracks of Lest We Forget. As can be expected, on the topic of St. Thomas, I had to ask that burning question: What was it like growing up on the island made famous in the jazz world by Sonny Rollins' tune from his landmark 1956 recording, Saxophone Collosus.
What I found out might be common knowledge among you jazz nuts out there, but according to Blake, Rollins' 'St. Thomas' for which he has been given credit for writing, is actually a folk melody with words that goes back several centuries. According to Blake, it is a well-known rhythm and melody on the eponymous isle and is part of the quelbe tradition of folk song. Sonny's parents, immigrants from the Virgin Islands, would sing this melody to Rollins as a youngster. When Sonny decided to record the tune however, he couldn't recall the words or the name ' hence the title we all know today (apparently in homage to his parents' homeland).
Going on about his island home, Blake recounts the recent history that befell the islands. 'There were two major hurricanes after I left ' Hugo and Marilyn ' that really devastated the Virgin Islands. Since then, they still really haven't recovered economically. The jazz festival,' which was one of the premier festivals in the world, 'didn't happened for a while.'
The saxophonist says he is moved and inspired by much more than jazz as one can plainly tell from his live shows. When he plays music, he is always concerned with the vibe the audience is getting from the band. He would much rather spice up the program with blues, funk, reggae, and humor, than play an hour and a half of 'serious' experimental crap, full of altered chord substitutions and odd time signatures ' which doesn't really work for today's audiences.
This willingness to actively incorporate other genres and to sometimes just keep things simple is what separates Blake from most jazz musicians. This attitude not only applies to Blake's approach to performing in jazz settings, it applies to his participation in other types of music. As an integral member of Orquestra Yerba Buena, he can often be found playing Afro-Cuban jazz in a Latin rock vein, thus appealing to 'mainstream' tastes, a definite faut-pas in jazz circles. Not many modern jazz-heads can boast being a member of a both a chart-topping jazz group (like McBride's) and a chart-topping alternative group (like Yerba Buena). Blake is not simply their road saxophonist ' he covers saxophones and flute as well as background vocals on record and on their live shows. The band's latest CD, Citizen Alien (2003), was recently nominated for a Grammy in the Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album category. By being cool with multiple genres, Blake not only legitimizes himself as a more marketable musician, but also distances himself from Wynton and the jazz fascists who refuse to play anything that lacks swing or the blues.
Being with musicians whom he plays with all the time, Blake made the most of his shows at Twins. Fresh off a two-nighter at The Jazz Gallery in New York, Blake brought his recently oiled and greased machine to play everything from Charles Earland's 'Mighty Burner' to the band's collectively composed 'Jam in B-flat,' a Chameleon-esque funk romp with McBride slapping out the bass lines on electric. Knowing each other's tendencies, the band's spontaneity was all the more plausible ' Gully spicing things up with off-kilter hits that kept Blake on his musical toes. With this band, each rhythm section member knew it could cross into other genres to keep the vibe fresh because Blake was all for making good music with a smile. The empathy between McBride, Gilmore, and Gully was palpable.
Blake's use of a foot-controlled device that instantaneously added reverb to his tone met with enthusiastic applause from an animated audience. The guitarist's rhythmically and harmonically inventive comping brought out the best in his counterparts including stunningly virtuosic agility from McBride and funky zoops, zaps, and shoinks from Gully.
Blake's musical vocabulary runs the gamut from hip bop lines to thoroughly modern riffs that are so fast, they whiz by; a result of countless hours of practice. But what strikes me most unique about Blake as an improviser and especially as a saxophonist is his overall lack of self-indulgence. He's into his altissimo as most tenor players today are, but every last note means something. Nothing is gratuitous. Everything is felt deep down in his soul so that he doesn't come off sounding like a technical acrobat as so many players today do. He's into playing as originally as possible, but every note has its place.
'Lately, I've really been into writing simple melodies. Sometimes there's nothing as nice as a beautiful melody.'
So while he's not busy gigging for McBride and Yerba Buena what is Blake up to?
From Fall 2001 through Spring 2003, he taught as a visiting professor at Western Michigan University in East Lansing, a program led by bassist Rodney Whitaker, another Hargrove band alum. 'Rodney's a bad cat,' says Blake. 'It's a promising new program that has a lot of potential.'
As for the future, Blake is intent on applying for an increasingly popular grant from Chamber Music America to compose new music for a group of his choosing (I found out that night from Gilmore, that he had recently won this grant).
'I think I would want to do something incorporating different media. Maybe dance or film.' There goes Blake. Gettin all original on us again. Whether he's doing and organ trio gig, playing reggae, classical, Latin, pop, or music from movies about chocolate, Ron's musical cup is always full.