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Russel Blake: Transcending Expectations

Mikayla Gilbreath By

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The importance of music cannot be overestimated. The importance of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to make that music more substantive, can not be overestimated.
Nearly everyone would agree that music is one of the most significant and enduring art forms ever created by mankind, though most people still view it primarily as entertainment. An astute few seem capable of looking beyond music's obvious entertainment value, and among these is bassist Russel Blake. He views music as both a tool for healing the spirit, and as a means of removing the cultural barriers which divide us, by serving as mankind's universal language. Blake strives to convey this message not only through his music, but also through his words and actions. To Russel Blake, being a musician is a gift which carries with it a serious obligation.

During the 50s, Blake's parents moved from Panama to Brooklyn, New York, where he was born on May 27th, 1961. On his twelfth birthday Blake received an electric bass as a gift from his father. He was then compelled by his father to practice for four hours every day, just as his older brother (noted bassist Alex Blake) had been. "It was something that I did not enjoy at first. This was [my father's] vision, not mine. So at first I was resistant. For the first three months that I began studying the instrument, it was not only to teach me how to play the bass fundamentally, but to teach me to be a first-sight reader. My father saw to it that I was prepared, as a professional."

At twelve years old, and with just three months experience playing bass, Russel Blake played his first professional gig. "There was a fifteen piece Latin band that needed a bassist. So they called my father to see if [my brother Alex] was available. My father said 'No' but that he had another son who played bass. My father brought me to the gig and they thought my father was going to play, because he was carrying the amplifier and the bass. When they found out that I was going to play, they were very resistant. They were adamant and indignant about the fact that they were grown men and professionals—they could not share the stage with a child! My father had to argue on my behalf. This was at the eleventh hour, so they had no other choice. They counted it off and I read everything first-sight. At the end of the evening, instead of fourteen enemies, I had fourteen friends. When preparation meets opportunity, success is achieved."

Russel Blake's desire to move beyond the traditional boundaries of music is a mindset gained during his childhood. Blake has long admired musicians such as John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Art Tatum, and Sonny Rollins. "Those individuals transcended the capabilities and expectations of their instruments. So that was my goal, to emulate those individuals who took their artistry and transcended the expectations of it." Interestingly, Russel Blake would later spend five years as exclusive bassist for one of his idols, Sonny Rollins, with whom Blake toured and recorded two albums. "The beauty of working with individuals like that, is that you quite often learn as much from them off stage as you do on stage, because you have the opportunity to interact with them on a spiritual level, on a mental level, [and] on an emotional level. It forms you, makes you more whole as a human being."

The intensive practice and study regimen Blake began as a child continued into adulthood, enabling him to explore and develop new methods for playing his instrument. "I had to start looking at myself more as a musician, and not just an individual who is playing a supportive instrument in a band. I wanted to transcend that. In my studies, when I began playing the melodies of songs I missed hearing the bass. And when I began playing the bass I'd miss hearing the melody. So I decided to start experimenting." Blake created and now teaches the novel method of playing the four string electric bass which resulted from that experimentation. His Melodious-Chordal Technique emphasizes a unique blend of harmony, rhythm, and melody, all played simultaneously.

"The first thing I had to overcome was the mental block that says that a four string electric bass isn't capable of performing works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Coltrane, or ragtime music from Scott Joplin—because of expectations. When people speak of soloists, they don't think of the four string electric bass. They conventionally think of a violinist, a pianist, or a guitarist." Blake has added more than 400 songs to his repertoire as a four string bass soloist. His remarkable talent is showcased in a four-CD series entitled Ten Fingers & Four Strings Solo Series (Man of Psalms Records, 2008).

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