MICHAEL BLAKE

Elevated
Knitting Factory KFW-304

Now this is exactly what a modern mainstream session should sound like.

As the enfants terribles of the so-called downtown New York scene reach their late thirties and early forties, they’ve finally gained the polish to add a version of historical jazz to the POMO pastiche of rock, blues, electronica and noise that has been their raison d’être. Case in point, as he shows on this relaxed session, is Vancouver, B.C.-born, Brooklyn-based saxophonist Michael Blake, 37.

Sideman with raucous fake-jazz bands like the Lounge Lizards and Sex Mob, and a member of jazz/folk band Slow Poke with slide guitarist David Tronzo, on ELEVATED, Blake has assembled the sort of horn-and-rhythm date that would have made earlier saxists like Zoot Sims or Gene Ammons proud.

Part of his desire to put a new spin on the tradition may come from the saxophonist’s membership in the Jazz Composers Collective (JCC), which also supplies pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison to the date. Inventive drummer Mike Mazor is the fourth man here. Not only do JCC members compose, as its name says, but they also devise new interpretations of little-known classic material like the tunes of pianist Herbie Nichols.

Although the only non-Blake composition here is pianist Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Calypso Minor”, each of the nine tunes works as a continuation of the modern jazz heritage. However unlike a neo-con’s note-for-note Dixieland-like recreations, Blake’s pieces augment tradition by appending original fillips to the basics — just as the final track here is entitled “New Blues, Old News”.

Blake’s particular achievement is that he does most of this obliquely, without setting off the equivalent of musical firecrackers. So while obvious surprises — to use an oxymoron — like the tabla-like drum beat on the first number or the utilization of two horns simultaneously elsewhere — may first hit the ear, other compositions are more quietly illustrative of his mrthods.

On “Merle the Pearl”, for instance, the blend of piano and soprano saxophone at the beginning makes it seem as if the band will soon break into Duke Ellington’s “Take The Coltrane”, written for the quartet the composer shared with Trane. But very quickly Blake modulates his tone a few decades further back producing the sort of funky butt clarinet-like style that characterized Ellington’s so-called Jungle Band. At the same time Allison creates a swift and stirring foursquare bass solo that easily plays off drum accents. Alternately, “Addis Ababa”, may reference Ethiopia, but only if that country’s musical sounds included a montuno section and a tenor saxophonist with Ben Webster’s deep breathy tone.

Webster’s dark caressing, late-night sax stylings are most clearly the model for the bluesy “Lucky Charms”, which was ostensibly written to salute star-crossed saxist Lucky Thompson. Making time with Kimbrough’s bop-tinged, right-handed tinkling, Blake’s wide vibrato and bottom of the horn swoops drip sensuality.

Moving dangerously close — by mistake? — as burlesque? — to Kenny G. territory on “Anthem for No Country”, Allison’s alternating bowed and plucked bass and the pianist’s hearty gospelish, treble tinkling offensive eventually manage to straighten up the tune’s backbone — as any good anthem should. As a matter of fact, before he ends it with an echoing crescendo, the composition has begun to resemble Blake’s countryman’s Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” more than any conventional anthem.

Wading deep into the low notes as he walks out his solo on Ibrahim’s “Calypso Minor”, the bassist dives also so deeply in the mainstream that he’s practically underwater. Meanwhile Blake is showcasing some POMO squeaks from his tenor, then meshing with Kimbrough’s chipped bass notes before finally playing both saxes simultaneously to create some horn obbligatos.

If musicians like Blake can rescue the real mainstream from the hands —and mouths — of recreators, they can continue to prove that there’s still a lot that can be created from evolutionary, as well as revolutionary, music. Undoubtedly this CD is exhibit A for the defense.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. In the Arms of Ali 2. Surfing Sahara 3. Elevated 4. Addis Ababa 5. Merle the Pearl 6. Calypso Minor 7. Lucky Charms 8. Anthem for No Country 9. New Blues, Old News

Personnel: Michael Blake (tenor and soprano saxophones); Frank Kimbrough (piano); Ben Allison (bass); Mike Mazor (drums)