Michael Blake

Songlines SGL 1615-2

By Ken Waxman

Program music that’s more music than program, saxophonist Michael Blake’s eight-part suite is a reimagining of 1914’s Komagata Mara incident, when Canada’s exclusionary racial laws wouldn’t allow a ship carrying several hundred Sikh immigrants to land in Vancouver. A B.C. to Brooklyn transplant, Blake’s great grand uncle was an MP who called for “a white country and a white British Columbia” at that time. Sentiments such as those are voiced by Emma Postl on “The Ballad of Gurtid Singh” where they share space with homey guitar picking from Ron Samworth, discursive processing from Chris Gestrin’s MicroMoog synthesizer and spatters of pointed emotionalism from Blake’s soprano saxophone.

These lyrics are among the suite’s few programmatic links. Like an ambiguously titled abstract painting, meaning must be intuited from the compositions’ themes and improvisations, since Fulfillment is art not agitprop. At the same time Blake’s sonic blending is so skilful that the six players provide the textures that would be expected from twice that number of musicians. On “Arrivals”, for instance, Peggy Lee’s dolorous cello pulsations, thickened by double-bass bumps from André Lachance, are contrasted with Blake’s elated skywards-shooting theme, similarly intensified with writhing electronics. Following it, the counterpoint on “Departures” results from cello stops facing harmonized horn lines. Eventually an almost-recognizable swing piano exposition gives way to drum beats which martially march the narrative to completion. Both tunes include vibrating sarod-like intimations from Samworth’s banjo.

Shifting gears, “The Soldier and the Saint” ends the program with a minor blues more reminiscent of John Coltrane’s works than anything specifically south-Asian. It does offer a showcase for J.P. Carter’s plunger trumpet licks though. Like Canadian legislation that finally recognized the country’s multi-cultural character, it’s a composition that blends rock-like fuzzy guitar licks, semi-classical string swells and jazz-oriented purposeful horn lines into a finale that’s unique and affirmative.

-A MusicWorks Exclusive Spotlight Review May 2016