Johnathan Blake Always Has Been ‘Focused on Rhythm’

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Johnathan Blake takes musical cues from his late father, John Blake Jr., a violinist who performed with McCoy Tyner and Archie Shepp.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

It’s a biting-cold January day in Manhattan.

The wind howls around corners and between the buildings with enough force, seemingly, to peel your skin off. Five stories up from the street, though, there’s enough heat coming off the Jazz Gallery’s stage to warm the whole block.

Drummer Johnathan Blake is guiding a student, a young man in his twenties, through a Thelonious Monk tune, showing him how to be expressive while maintaining the solid swing of the legendary pianist’s era. The student takes a turn at the kit, and then stands up at his teacher’s signal. Blake, a tall, stocky player, moves to the drum throne and offers a demonstration of what he’s looking for: a slow, rumbling shuffle beat that seems to wander and explore, but never goes fully off the path. The student nods thoughtfully, absorbing it all.

The lesson ends, and Blake descends from the stage, sitting at one of the Jazz Gallery’s small tables, a calm smile on his face. A 42-year-old Philadelphia native, he’s the son of John Blake Jr. (1947–2014), a violinist who worked with McCoy Tyner, Cecil McBee, Archie Shepp and others, and made a string of albums as a leader, beginning in 1984.

“My first exposure to live music was through my father, of course,” Blake recalled. “When I was born, my dad was playing with Grover Washington Jr., and Grover was using a drummer by the name of Pete Vincent, a great drummer from Philly. I was really young, 1 or 2 years old, but my parents said when the music started I would just lock in. I was in a trance, nothing could break my attention, and I was always focused on rhythm.”

Despite that, Blake followed in his father’s footsteps at first, picking up the violin at 3 and studying at home, then at Settlement Music School, an organization with multiple branches throughout Philadelphia. It wasn’t until fifth grade that he became a drummer in his elementary school band. By the time he was a teenager, Blake was gigging and sitting in at local jam sessions, and connecting with as many elders as possible. He’d also added another instrument to his arsenal.

“When my dad saw that I was really gravitating to the drums, he made it a point to tell me, ‘All right, if you’re gonna play the drums, I need you to also learn about the piano,’” he said. “So, I started taking piano lessons at 11 or 12. I never really felt that I was great at it, but I could figure out chords and read. I write at the piano; I have keyboards sometimes, and I use them to figure out chords. Sometimes, I’ll sing into my phone—I’ll sing an excerpt or a piece of something that enters my head, and later on, when I have time to sit at the piano I’ll try to flesh it out. I’ll play the melody and try to figure out some chords that go with it.”

Blake enrolled in the jazz program at William Paterson University and later earned his master’s degree in composition from Rutgers University, where he studied with Stanley Cowell. The pianist was able to pull Blake out of a compositional rut by setting challenges for him. Each week, the drummer had to compose a piece for piano using a particular set of parameters, like making the left and right hands play patterns that were a mirror image of each other. “I composed nine or 10 tunes, not that I’d play all of them publicly,” he chuckled, “but it did get me started writing again and flushing out those ideas that I couldn’t get out.”

But it was a gig Blake landed in his late teens that put him on the New York jazz scene’s radar. He became the drummer for the Mingus Big Band, which played every week at Fez, a small room beneath Time Café in Greenwich Village. Blake found it a thrill, as well as a major learning experience.

“When I started getting inside that music, it opened up a whole new world for me. I really learned how the drums are supposed to function in a band. You’re talking about 15 other guys, so you have to learn how to push the band. ... When [the arrangement featured] a soloist, I started thinking about it like a quartet was inside the big band, and really trying to focus on how the soloist was going to shape his solo.”

Blake first encountered saxophonist Chris Potter in the big band, and they’ve continued to work together—Potter is on Blake’s 2014 album, Gone But Not Forgotten (Criss Cross Jazz), and his new release, the live two-CD set Trion (Giant Step Arts). “He had been playing with the band for a couple of years before I joined, and I thought, ‘This dude is special, the way he’s hearing chords and how he’s playing off the harmony,’” Blake recalled. “He really had a unique approach, even back then. It was coming out of Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano and Trane, so he was still developing his own sound, so to speak, but it was really fascinating to hear him.”

“The core of what makes Johnathan great is the depth of his jazz swing feeling,” Potter said. “He literally grew up in it, and you can tell that he feels it and he lives it with his entire self. His ride cymbal beat, the way he approaches it, just feels right—there’s no way you can’t connect with that.”

The Mingus gig led to a unique opportunity for Blake in 2001, when he met hip-hop icon Q-Tip, then breaking out as a solo artist after achieving success with A Tribe Called Quest. The Mingus Big Band’s weekly performances were routinely packed and attracted a crowd of celebrities and other musicians: Members of Metallica or rapper Mos Def might show up to check out the music. “The first time I met [Q-Tip],” Blake recalled, “he was there with Robert De Niro, and he called me over to his table.” The rapper was looking to move in a new direction, and he needed a creative partner. “He was like, ‘I have this idea of doing a live band with me emceeing.’ It was organic, ’cause he was trying to figure it out himself.”

Blake assembled a band that included some of his fellow students and some well-known jazz names, including alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. “We kind of did an audition at my place, and he dug the musicians I put together. We grooved out on some stuff and Q-Tip dug the way we played together, so we would go to his house and start rehearsing. He didn’t have any music, so we would come up with ideas and start recording.”

The resulting album, Kamaal The Abstract, was rejected by Arista Records and sat on the shelf until 2009, when it was released by Jive/Battery. “The timing was a little weird,” Blake recalled. “[Q-Tip] had just put his first record out as a leader [1999’s Amplified], so the label was saying, ‘We can’t put out a record with you singing and a live band. We’d have to change your whole fan base.’”

Since then, Blake has become one of the most in-demand drummers around. He regularly works with trumpeter Tom Harrell, pianist Kenny Barron and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, among others. He’s also a member of the band the Black Art Jazz Collective. Each setting demands something different, but it’s a testament to Blake’s abilities that he makes his presence felt in any context.

“With Doc, he’s all about the groove,” the drummer said. “Whether we’re playing straightahead or more funk and r&b stuff, he wants that pocket to remain there. And he wants it to be full—he wants it to sound like a big band almost, even if it’s a trio. So, some of the challenges for me [are] how to make that band sound really full without necessarily overpowering it, but still complementing guitar and organ. He’s not so much about chops or anything. He really wants it to be about the groove and finding the pocket, so for me, it took editing some of my own way of playing and thinking to really blend in, and I like those kind of challenges. I like to remain true to myself, but give the leader what he wants out of the band.”

With Barron, Blake’s role is very different—more engine than foundation. “Kenny doesn’t really say much at all. I think I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve rehearsed,” he said with a laugh. “One of the things I’ve learned from being in his band all these years is really pacing myself, and really telling a story. Kenny’s 75 now, so there’s an energy that a younger musician brings that an older musician might not bring, that he looks for. Because he has to play off that. He needs that to give him the fuel to play. If it’s somebody that’s just gonna be as relaxed as him, it’s not gonna work,” he said, laughing again. “He didn’t want me to come in and play all my bebop licks that I studied. He could get somebody that grew up in that tradition and be more authentic. He wanted me to stretch out and play how I normally play and just give him energy.”

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