Monday, 9 June 2014

The Komagata Maru Blues

On May 23rd, 2014, the steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India. Only 24 passengers were allowed to deport and after several months under lock down, the ship was forced back to India by exlusionists. Several years ago, upon learning that my Great Grand Uncle, then Conservative MP H.H. Stevens, was responsible for the detainment and eventual deportation of the passengers aboard the Kamagata Maru, I felt the urge to compose a work meant as a gesture of atonement and reparation for what was at the time a sad and regretful moment in Canadian history. On the other hand I think H.H. was acting in the best interest of 'white' Caandians and doing what his constituants asked of him. This doesn't mean I am embracing the connection with my relative nor am I trying to vilify him. In the words of Adam Gopnik, “Historical criticism, which is ostensibly about trying to understand things as they were seen then, too often spends its time hectoring the dead about not having seen things as we do now.” The music is resonating with a sense of adventure which suits the spirit behind any person who is willing to leave ones home in search of a good life in a new land. All of us who have done the same can relate to that experience and essentially that's what this music is about. 


Featuring an expanded instrumentation of my Vancouver group The Variety Hour, I'm proud to announce that I'll be premiering the piece at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival on June 22nd. Many thanks to both Coastal Jazz and Blues and Barking Sphinx Perfromance Societies for their support in the creation of this new work!


Coastal Jazz and Barking Sphinx Present:
Michael Blake's Komagata Maru Blues

Michael Blake - tenor and soprano saxophones
JP Carter - trumpet and electronics
Peggy Lee - cello
Chris Gestrin - piano and moog
Ron Samworth - guitar
Andre Lachance - bass
Dylan van der Schyff - drums

And Special Guests:
Emma Postl - vocals
Nellamjit Dhillon - tablas

After discovering that fellow Vancouverite and musician Neelamjit Dhillon was also writing a piece commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, I rethought about how to approach the work. We chatted a bit on Facebook about the coincidence and spoke about each other's intentions. We both seemed to be heading in a similar direction. But once I knew where Neel was going and after further discussion with Barking Sphinx director Dylan van der Schyff,  I decided to take on a different perspective and rather than write music solely about the Komagata Maru I would treat the work like a series of musical 'essays' about assimilation and identity. This was a difficult subject matter to work with and I didn't want  to add insult to injury by sloppily fusing Indian music into my own work. Knowing that Neel had a much better knowledge and cultural right to express that side of the story helped me to dig down into my own thoughts and feelings about the immigrant experience. I'm honored that Neelamjit will be joining us as a special guest on tablas.

The great free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler once said, "Music is the healing force of the universe." Because I've chosen to work within the structures of jazz I think the art from and it's history serve as an excellent metaphor for acceptance, social democracy and believing in building a better society. After all I've spent most of my life playing a music that I assimilated. In my heart I feel that jazz is a universal music but it was built on the courage, genius and vision of African Americans. As a matter of fact at the time of the 
Komagata Maru incident a young Louis Armstrong started cutting his teeth on the streets of New Orleans playing what was to become jazz. After an art form is claimed outside of the culture responsible for its very existence, does it loose vitality or meaning? Is there a disconnect to its very source? As far as jazz pertains, when only whites were the first 'interpreters' this was a pretty common argument but it didn't take long for jazz to break loose from the confines of being a solely American music; as new sounds blended in from Cuba and Brazil and other cultures began to inject new influences into the music. For decades now jazz has become even more of an International music with leading players from South Asia, Israel, Europe and Latin America - and even Canada! - contributing new ideas and pushing the art form forward. And so I believe it is the same within a democracy, that is, when laws are designed to protect all of the people. Sadly at the root of the Komagata Maru there was a serious abuse of power led by H.H. Stevens; thwarting the efforts of anti exclusionist Gurdit Singh and reining in an era of discord that lasts to this day.

To me what the Komagata Maru incident makes me feel is akin to what I hear in the blues. I also hear that wail in the most socially assertive and progressive sound of what is known as free jazz. My ear and the affects of the blues was exponential in my early development. Naturally I thought it best to work within my element as that is where the title comes in and what the work means to me.

I've travelled a lot and through observation I find there are always common denominators in how different societies experience both intolerance and acceptance. Earlier works of mine touch on the 'fish out of water' story (Kingdom of Champa) and another was inspired by the pioneer spirit of early European settlers in BC (Amor de Cosmos). The music is all instrumental so the meaning behind the concept is really up to the listener to decode. This is the great thing about jazz. And what better way to express my/our respect for the victims of the 
Komagata Maru then to let their voices be heard through the spirits of sound waves. Waves seem play a big part in much of my music.

For those interested in learning more about the Komagata Maru incident, this is an excellent documentary by Ali Kazimi.

Recently I participated in a CBC radio special on the Komagata Maru incident that is availble for stereaming here. Anyone visiting Vancouver this summer should visit the Maritime Museum and see their marvelous exhibit . Unfotunately the link appears to be dead???! Another is at The Mueum of Vancouver and just out of the city limits is another exhibit at The Surrey Museum.




Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Contrasts in Individualim Pt 3

First of all I'd like to thank everyone who came out to hear the new work at Kitano in January. The premiere was on the heels of a trip to New Orleans and I was inspired to play the new music for all of you! Next week we will perform the music for the second time at Jazz Standard.

Tuesday, March 18th at 7:30 and 9:30pm
http://jazzstandard.net/red/
Michael Blake's World Time Zone A premiere of my new work "Contrasts in Individualism: Reinterpreting the Innovations Of Hawkins and Young"! Made possible with support from Chamber Music America's 2013 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Michael Blake (tenor sax), Ben Allison (bass), Ferenc Nemeth (drums) and special guest Frank Kimbrough (piano)

Exploring the stylistic innovations of my heroes has been a truly humbling experience. This year I'm turning 50 years old and I still can't believe it. I've been really fortunate to make a life playing and composing music and despite the challenges I face in the music business I have no complaints about the business of making music. Things have changed a lot since I came to NYC in 1986. At the beginning I was completely lost as to what I should do... how to play, what tunes to learn, etc...Despite taking lessons with one of that eras strongest contemporary saxophonists I always felt like I didn't fit in to that mold. I found my niche working with the Jazz Composers Collective members and The Lounge Lizards. Both were made up up of completely different thinkers and that was just what I needed. I began t think for myself and work with sound and substance rather than style. I remember thinking back then that I was going to have to change the way I thought about getting my music out there. Fortunately I had a lot of support from several small labels that always supported my new releases and gave me a platform to sell and distribute my music. I am especially proud of my latest effort 'In the Grand Scheme of Things'. I have never  produced an album that doesn't absorb some concept otuside of the straight ahead jazz niche. I always felt that if I was going to make an album it should stand up to multiple listens and capture something fresh that is encircling my mind and imagination. But this time I'm setting aside the quirky instrumentations to record a mainstream jazz quartet album.

This music is about two incredible saxophone players and in order to pay them tribute I went into the woodshed and spent many hours reviewing the qualities that define their music. Ultimately I came out of the premiere relieved that all that work paid off. I wanted to play at my best and not choke while trying to measure up to my own expectations. A forthcoming album of the new music confirms in my mind that the cliche is wrong - you can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact just before the premiere I was working for my old friend Steven Bernstein and I received some friendly advice from him on what not to play in a secific situation. I was reminded that you are never too old to learn how to be a better musician. 
Back to work!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Contrasts in Indivualism Pt 2

The year got off to an interesting and challenging start for me. I was asked to fill in for the brilliant multi-instrumentalist/composer Peter Apfelbaum in Steven Bernstein's Hot 9 Band. This group contains the front line of his own Millenial Territory Orchestra, a long surviving band of brilliant characters who manage to both keep one foot in the past and another in the future while playing Steven's vibrant arrnagements in the present. Steven's new band has been backing up the truly amazing pianist Henry Butler. I had the pleasure of performing with them in front of a capacity crowd last fall at BRIC. Earlier this month at Jazz Standard Steven and Co kicked off the New Year with a week long stint before recording with the great New Oleans master. It was a thrill for me to sink my teeth into this music right before going to New Orleans myself. Not to mention that it also meant wokring with many of old friends (Doug Wieselman, Charlie Burnham, Curtis Fowlkes, Erik Lawrence, Matt Munisteri) and new friends Donald Edwards, Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal.

This experience was just what I could wish for a few weeks before premiering my new work 'Contrasts in Individualism' with my group World Time Zone. A few recollections from NoLa are obviously worth discussing. This video of clarentist is the best example I can share of just how deep the music is down there. Doreen Ketchens is screaming the blues through that clarinet with such power and intent that she might change the world for the better in one chorus. In fact a street artist pointed out that, "Down here a horn can save someones life". Now that's what I want to hear! In NoLa music not only provides meaning and connects locals with a sense of New Orleans history but it can also change the lives of anyone lucky and open enough to listen. You don't see it so well in this video but there's a young girl at the drums (around 12yrs old I think) and the drummer is sitting next to her on a break. She's keeping time and along the way he's pointing to different parts of the drum kit and teaching her on the spot what is the right thing to do. She switches to hi-hat for the sousaphone solo then at the end goes around the kit and chokes the cymbal at the end. I was really inspired to see this type of conduction happening ON THE STREET and it made me realize what Butch Morris's conduction was an extention of this technique. On the job training!



Lester Young
Lester grew up on the road but he was born in Algiers LA, a suberb of New Orleans. Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math contains one of the best resources on 'classic' Lester Young performances I've ever seen compiled. Made even sweeter by Lee Konitz's comments and insights, together they should be able to turn every jazz lover into a 'Presophile' and anyone who already loves Lester will be in jazz heaven. Thanks to him I'm able to reference the famous early solos and use the samples he has so diligently transcribed.

My fascination with Pres began when my jazz history teacher played the famous small group session recordings of Count Basie ie Shoehine Boy and Lady Be Good solos. Plenty has been written expounding the genius of these gems but there are a few others that are equally sublime and one version of Lady Be Good is rather prophetic. In fact this solo inspired Ethan to go on his quest to uncover the mystery of Young's work, made even more interesing considering that critic have said this solo is a wasted effort. I agree with Ethan and believe this is the gateway to improvised music or 'free jazz'' in that Lester uses a chromatic rather than diatonic apporach to this solo. It's weird and wonderful in every way. The transcription is mandatory reading for any doubters. Check out the chromatic leading tones at bars 8-12! And then at the bridge, in a surprising burst of bravura, he rides a C major 7 arpeggio 5 times and then continues that phrase over the I chord (F > D7).  I love the lovely flourish at the end which is truly the icing on the cake.

A key moment of understanding of Lester's genius has to be this single chorus on the blues Fine and Mellow recorded on The Sound of Jazz for TV in the 50's. It captures him with fellow tenor giants Ben Wesbster and Coleman Hawkins. As good as they both are here, it's Pres's melancholy and achingly lyrical solo that stands out. Billie seems especially entranced by his vibe. It's almost a lost art, this way of developing a musical statement through melodic improvising.

Coleman Hawkins
The first time I heard Coleman Hawkins was on an album with Earl Hines that my father had bought as part of an incredible jazz collection that was sold before I came into my own. It's a live album from the 60's and he is swinging hard as ever. I started on the clarinet and I was immediately intrigued by Pee Wee Russell who my Dad always raved about after reading Whitney Balliet's essays on him in The New Yorker. I also liked Goodman, DeFranco, Guiffre and Bigard but for some reason Pee Wee was my man. Another standout was the New Orleans native Alvin Batiste who at the time (1980's) was one of the few clarinetists playing fusion. He appeared on a Billy Cobham album or two. Anyway, Pee Wee and Hawkins recorded together with famed trombonist Glenn Miller back in 1929 along with Red McKenzie on 'comb'. It's fascinating to compare these solos and hear the evolution from 1929 - 1963! Hawkin's solo on If I Could Be with you (One hour Tonight) from both periods are glorious in their own right. The big difference is in the phrasing and how relaxed his lines ahad become compared to '29. Might that be some of Lester's cool influencing Hawkin's own sensibility? The later solo was one of the first tenor solos I cherished and the entire album 'Jazz Reunion' is a gem. I transcribed Hawkin's passionate solo from All Too Soon off of this album and it still gives me goose bumps.


In Closing
While walking along Royal St a came upon a music store that had my first reed brand in stock - Rico Regular. I had been trying to find the best sound possible for this new music and I wanted to go back to my vintage set up and a cane reed. On a whim I bought a few for kicks and once back home I put one on my mouthpiece and gave it a blow. It was like an old friend came home to visit and I think I'm going to ask that old friend to stay a while because it all fits together now; Contrasts in Individualism is the culmination of 30 years of playing, working and studying music on the tenor saxophone. I'd like to thank all the musicians who have influenced and helped me along the way! Good music is timeless and I feel some relief knowing that the struggle and hardship these great jazz pioneers had to endure really does carry on for generations. New Orleans has shown me another side of America that every musician should discover. As a matter of fact I bumped into a pair of Danish hornmen on their way home after spending 2 weeks hanging out there. It was immediately apparent that they (like me) were aware that they had just spent some time in a sort of musicians fairytale. 


We premiered the work last Thursday at Kitano in NYC. There was a full house and the music came pouring out just as I had hoped it might. It was especially nice (that word always sounds so uncool) to be reviewed by Ralph Miriello. His article is up on the Huffington Post! Ben Allison, Frank Kimbrough and Rudy Royston brought exactly what I needed to pull it off, so many thanks all round.

We'll be playing the work again on Tuesday, March 18th at 7:30 and 9:30pm
Jazz Standard 116 E 27th St, New York, NY 10016 (212) 576-2232

Monday, 9 December 2013

Contrasts in Individualism Pt 1

Next month I'll be premiering a new work called Contrasts in Individualism: Reinterpreting the Innovations of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The long winded title is a reference to the incredible contributions both of these men made to music on the saxophone, an instrument that was previously considered a novelty instrument. It is impressive how two African-American men from the mid-west were able to rise above the segregated landscape of 1930's America and change the history of music. Their ideas would revolutionize jazz and lead the development of Be-Bop, Cool Jazz and Rock 'n Roll. When you hear the classic recordings of these gentlemen it is immediately apparent just how good they were. But in todays world it is easy to loose the lineage of exactly how Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz or John Coltrane come out of these schools. Then there was the Avante-Garde, fusion and the young lions. Today's pyro-technical approach makes it easy to miss or dismiss the influences that Hawk and Pres have had on generations of saxophonists.

Because of his virtuosic and aggressive sound, Coleman Hawkins is associated with Hot jazz and was one of the first Americans to travel abroad and infuence European musicians. I see his influence as pretty widespread but here's a list of players that seem to follow an evolution of Hawk:

Coleman Hawkins > Lucky Thompson > Sonny Rollins > Archie Schepp > James Carter

Lester 'Pres' Young came out of Kansas City and is synonymous with Cool jazz. He's also known for his unique language and style of dress. For ex. the term 'crib' for apartment is his. The 'Lady' in Lady Day (Billie Holiday), also his. If you've ever heard Charles Mingus's Goodbye Porkpie Hat then you know how much he meant to him. Here's a lineage of players I think come straight out of Pres:

Lester Young > Charlie Parker > Stan Getz > Warne Marsh > Mark Turner

Along with his incredibly relaxed approach Lester could also wail. He often used false fingerings to achieve a repetitive effect. Instead of repeating the note with the same fingering he'd use an alternative fingering and get the same note with a muted timbre. i.e. Doo-wah doo-wah...like when a brass player uses his hand to cup the bell. It wasn't necessary to even use the effect, simply hitting the root and repeating it ad lib in time with the band would send the audience into a frenzy. Flip Phillips would make this his schtick and then the Rhythm and Blues players took it to another level all together. Before the electric guitar was dominant, this aggressive style would be the most revolutionary sound in American music. Hawkins also contributed to R&B music by vocalizing or 'growling' through the horn.  He also wailed but in a different manner: Pres would hold the horn up at an angle, eyes staring ahead, head back, observing the scene around him while Hawkins usually played with his eyes closed, blowing with intense concentration. Here they are on Art Ford's TV program in 1958. Lester wouldn't be around much longer. Hawk managed to play right through into the mid '60's.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DmtPvFa_W8

Watching this, how can you not love how they are all having some serious FUN! That's Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. My first instrument and my favorite 'modern' clarinetist. He started in the 1920's and recorded with Hawkins in 1929. More about that later. At 4:00 Pres starts 'wailing', using the false fingerings I was talking about. At 6:26 Hawkins enters with a classic motif and you can hear those riffs that are so indicative of R&B at 6:40. Check out how trumpet man Charlie Shavers provokes Pres to start exchanging with Hawkins after his solo. It seems neither of them expected to 'trade fours' and I'm so glad Shavers got that to happen but i wish it went on longer. There's a reason these two were so revered and thanks to YouTube it's out there for the world to see. I used to go to great lengths to get videos like this and I was almost as surprised by this as to find out that Coltrane once played with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz on TV!

Many years ago I was in a funk and I attended a workshop with the composer/bassist Dave Holland who I had studied with in Banff when he ran that summer jazz workshop. He was always very supportive of my playing and liked my natural approach. I think even though I was far from refined I had a good feel and instincts for improvising. He always pointed out that I wasn't trying to play all my licks. Well i didn't really have any licks! At the workshop I expressed how I had lost my way trying to emulate the players who emulated Coltrane. In his kindest tone he said, "How about Don Byas?". It sparked my interest in discovering new ways of seeing innovations on the saxophone and from then on I never really compared players as being more or less 'modern'. In fact the rhythmic and sonic quailites of the pre-bop saxophonists can be linked to post-bop generation.

Between 1968-76 I heard almost as much funk and soul on the radio as rock. I loved Sly and The Family Stone, Ray Charles and especially Stevie Wonder. I also liked Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. When you hear Hendrix you are hearing an innovator of sound. It's incredible that his psychedelic guitar style made it into pop culture but it did. And who influenced them? R&B artists! And what kicked off R&B? Yup...the saxophone, that's what. Jimi's sound broke the sonic barrier in electric pop music. Some people revolutionize art and even mange to cross over into the mainstream. So it's not completely absurd to think of Pres as the Hendrix of his era. With his original style, innovative phrasing, strange and beautiful notes he brought something new to popular music. Hawkins would become an icon after his version 'Body and Soul' made him a star. If Coleman Hawkins could be compared to an elevator, traveling up and down through harmonic passages then Lester Young was the escalator, taking his time and finding a different way to get to the same place. They both brought us to the future. There's a lot of life experience coming through in their music. The ability to communicate that feeling through the horn is what made me interested in playing jazz.

In my next blog I'll expand on how both individuality and intelligence play a large role in the music of Hawkins and Young. I'll use some samples that show how Pres and Hawk evolved and influenced the next generation of jazz musicians. Eventually, as the premiere grows near I'll play some samples of the work and show how Pres and Hawk influenced me.










Monday, 15 July 2013

Bringing Us Together



Me and Scotty in Brooklyn
The daring engineer/producer Scott Harding (aka Scotty Hard) has worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, jazz, alternative and creative music. Over the last year, I have been producing Party Hard (for Scotty Hard) with the intentions of both helping out my friend and making a point about the value of intellectual property. Myself and the community of musicians behind Party Hard (for Scotty Hard) are proud to announce the release of this very special track in tandem with the Music Frees All Festival; a three day benefit for Scott happening this weekend (July 19th - 21st). Party Hard is a funky furlough that takes the listener through a gamut of musical territories, with spine tingling solos from John Medeski, David Tronzo and Marcus Rojas. All of the musicians played from their hearts, bringing a unique brand of soul and musicianship to every beat. The track is available here!
In 2008 after a near fatal car accident that left him paralyzed the eclectic engineer/producer Scott Harding spent many months recovering in NY hospitals. After being diagnosed with a severe spinal cord injury Scott worked his butt off in rehab to regain the strength, independence and skills required to start a new life. The outpouring of support on both coasts was immense. The Scotty Hard Trust was set up in his name to help raise funds that provide him immediate and long-term financial support. Unfortunately, not long after his recovery, his health took a left turn. For over a year a circle of friends helped Scotty get the rest he needed in order for him to heal from a pressure wound. While he had limited access to his wheelchair and thus less time to work, his trust has been depleted. Scotty’s patience has finally started to pay off! The wound is healing and he is slowly getting back to work.

Kingdom of Champa Session: Rufus Cappadacio, Billy Martin. Scott Neumann, Bryan Carrott, Tony Scherr
Scott Harding, Marcus Rojas, Teo Macero, David Tronzo, Thomas Chapin, Cteven Bernstein
Michael Blake



















Scott and my relationship goes back to our college days but a pivotal recording - 1997’s Kingdom of Champa with the legendary producer Teo Macero at the helm - introduced Scott to a new generation of innovative musicians. Afterwards Scott recorded landmark albums with Medeski, Martin and Wood, Sex Mob, Charlie Hunter and Vijay Iyer, among others. I know that musicians will come together for big reasons and as much as I know Scott deserves an album - NO, a double album! - a tribute was in order. I want  to mention that the bed tracks were recorded by my NYC based band with Ryan Blotnick (guitar), Michael Bates (bass), Greg Ritchie (drums) and Landon Knoblock (fender rhodes). Because of the large line-up only Landon's tracks made it to the final mix but all of their energy and musical contributions are worth noting. I'm grateful to my boys for throwing down for Scotty that day. 

Scott with Medeski, Martin and Wood
Scott with guitarist Charlie Hunter
We recorded the bed tracks at our friend Leif Arntzen’s home studio, later adding Miles Arntzen’s driving drum tracks, John Medeski’s B3 organ and a horn section. When it was time to start editing and take the track to the next level I asked the versatile engineer/producer Teddy Kumpel to step in and help man the console. Teddy also added electric bass and recorded all of the remaining tracks. Scotty asked old friends Joel Hamilton to mix and Mike Fossenkemper to master. And just as the track was about to be released, musician/actor/artist John Lurie allowed us to use one of his beautiful paintings for the cover art! It is the cherry on top of a project filled with amazing surprises and world-class artists.

Like so many performing and recording artists I'm interested in the debate about royalty and licensing rights for Internet streaming. In light of new technology and distribution methods musicians are at a crossroads with the music business as to how much money should be allocated for musicians rights. All of us involved in this project think it's important to raise awareness about the negative effects and long term destructive nature of deeming our music an entitlement to a 'free culture' and not worth paying for. With all the funding from downloads directly funding Scott's trust its irrefutable that there is not only value in a recorded work (worth protecting) but it also proves that this money provides an important source of income for artists that we can't afford to loose.

"Party Hard was a pleasure to work on. All of the musicians and engineers donated their time to this cause. I am so proud and grateful that I can share the inspiration and influence of our friend Scott Harding with YOU!” – Michael Blake

Scott and Tom Camuso at their Brooklyn studio.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Beats and Tweaks

Starting Thursday, February 21st I'll be hosting a night at Bizarre Bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I'm leading The Bizarre Jazz and Blues Band there every week where we'll be playing some old jazz and blues. Stay tuned for more information.

I had a great time last month touring in Canada with The Variety Hour promoting our CD In the Grand Scheme of Things. We played in Edmonton,  Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Guelph. Many thanks to everyone along the way, especially Ron Gaskin and the band (Dylan, JP and Chris). I will admit touring there in January when the hockey season starts up (post lockout) is no easy feat. Some rooms were lightly attended but the Ottawa Winter Jazz Fest, Montreal's Casa de Popolo and Toronto's The Rex, among others were fun shows and people came out to hear us. I also had the pleasure of making a few radio shows which were all hosted by people that know their jazz. I even made the cover of The Ottawa Citizen. Great big thanks to The Canada Council for the Arts for their tour support.





Nest up, I will rerelease my album Elevated online with more of my CD's to come. I also plan to release some unreleased sessions and live performances for download. Elevated has been out of print for quite a while although some copies of the original Knitmedia CD's still exist. I hope with this new venture that I will gain more skills at self promoting and managing my catalogue.

Another bit of news is the CD One from None, recently released on Fresh Sounds and colead by bassist Michael Bates and trombonist Samuel Blaser. This marks my debut on this label which has produced hundreds of albums. These guys both write and play their butts off as do their sidemen. Look for a follow up soon to come.



Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Back on the Blog

My blog got away from me all year. But, I spent a lot of time making music with friends, old and new.
Here's a brief recap of the year behind and an update on what's going on now and for the year ahead.


I am fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences in 2012 and I should start with the recording and release of some new music. 'In the Grand Scheme of Things' (Songlines) and 'Union Square' (A-beat) are radically different albums and I am very happy about how well these albums sound. They also look great and I'm especially proud to release my second CD on the fine Canadian label Songlines. They've also been receiving positive reviews. The best piece about my music in along time comes from Will Layman at popmatters.com. Another one worth mentioning was just written about Union SqWe have a FREE TRACK you can listen to from In the Grand Scheme of Things. Esoterica is a piece we recorded at the first recording session and although it didnt make it onto the CD it is a lovely moody piece.

Recently I've come across many discussions on social networks and jazz blogs about music (Jazz and the American Songbook for ex.) being dead. How can any music be dead? I will never understand that argument. Music is something that elevates our lives and lifts us above our basic shortcomings as humans. No matter how lousy or great you might feel in any given moment there's most likely a piece of music that fits in and helps (or simply accompanies) us through that experience. And now we have the convenience to select whatever we want to accompany our lives. Sure, certain music may become unfashionable but it's impossible to kill it.  Like Frank Zappa said, "Jazz isn't dead. It just smells funny".

Blake, Knoblock, Ritchie and Bates
Another recording session this past year yielded some great tracks. Instead of selling an album or CD I will offer these tracks as singles and just put them out like that. One of the first of these single releases will be a track I'm producing as a fundraiser for my friend Scott Harding (aka Scotty Hard). The music is still a work in progress featuring special guests John Medeski, Miles Arntzen, Billy Martin and many others. The bed tracks were recorded with my Band with whom I'll be releasing the other singles.

I also recorded a few CD's as a sideman. One is coming out on Fresh Sounds/New Talent with the Michael Bates/Sam Blaser group. I enjoyed working with Sam so much I invited him to play with my band in China. We were all sorry our bassist Peter Scherr wasn't able to make the tour but we decided to go for it anyway. Playing without any bass or chord intruments really opened us up. Jazz is still really new to a lot of people there but when they come to listen they are electrified by the music.

One of THE BEST gigs I ever played in ever was at the Shenzhen Jazz Festival
Sam Blaser, Blake, Michael Sarin

Outside my hotel room in Shanghai


TV show in Changsha. They wanted soemthing more...passionate.
(ie George Michael's Careless Whisper)

Sam and our host trying to catch a cab in Beijng


The Minus One (Tommaso Cappellato, Stefano Senni and myself) released 'Live in Pisa' on Punto Rojo from our tour last year. A gig in Tremezzo (Lago de Como) really showed what this trio is capable of. We were on FIRE!

Not too shabby....
The Minus One: Senni, Blake, Cappellato

In my element

I also toured in Spain with bassist Arthur Kell. Great music, venues, audiences and food!

LtoR: Blake, Nate Radley, Arthur Kell, Mark Ferber in Gijon, Spain


The year started off with a very successful reunion of Kingdom of Champa at the Manzoni Theater in Milan. Then a few weeks later I played with bassist Ben Allison's band at Carnegie Hall. Another highlight was last weeks Jazz Composers Collective 20th Anniversary at NYC's Jazz Standard. What a pleasure to play with and hear my fellow composers again! Of course there were many other experiences that I was very happy to be a part of. Here's a photo of myself and my buddy trumpeter Steven Bernstein at the Siena Jazz Workshop concert with the great altoist Greg Osby. This was my 4th year teaching there and the faculty, and students were better than ever. The week finished off with a recording session with the wonderul pianist Alessandro Giachero and his trio. I was super tired that day but their music inspired and energized me.



I will be touring in Canada in January from Jan 18-Feb 2, 2013. The dates are almost locked in but still some last minute gigs coming in for the last leg out East. World Time Zone and my Band are playing the Cornelia St. Cafe during APAP on January 12th. More info about these events coming soon!

Time to go but before I do, here's another anecdote from the vault...

Weirdest Gigs Ever!

#4. Harvey Keitel's wedding reception at Robert DeNiro's loft. Loved seeing these guys hanging out and especially Christopher (Bruce Dickinson wants more cowbell!) Walken. DeNiro wasn't around because he was,"Upstairs making the sauce". Another Keitel quote while his bride-to-be adjusts his 'walk down the aisle', "We're not even married yet and she's already giving me direction". Enjoyed the entire party but a highlight was getting the thumbs up from Al Pacino. Note: we were subbing for John Lurie's National Orchestra. Thanks John!