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)

As a leader, Blake prefers to let music marinate on the bandstand before it’s committed to tape—another lesson he learned from his father. “Right after my father passed, I was helping my mother clean out the house, and he had kept an old calendar and I found it. One of the first things he did when he joined McCoy Tyner’s band was, he went out on tour for what seemed like a month in Japan. This was summer of ’79 or something. When they came back, that’s when they recorded [Horizon, on which Blake’s violin and compositions are featured]. They had been playing night after night; when they went into the studio, he said it just felt so natural. It was almost like playing another show.”

Blake chose the title of his 2012 debut, The Eleventh Hour (Sunnyside), because he’d waited so long to record it, playing its tunes in public until the band had them down cold. His second release, though, came together quickly. Gone But Not Forgotten was recorded after a makeshift performance at the Jazz Gallery. Blake was asked to put a band together to cover a cancellation, and he recruited Potter, saxophonist Mark Turner (who’d played on The Eleventh Hour) and bassist Ben Street.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Mark’s, and saxophone players don’t always get a chance to play together,” Potter recalled, “so that was nice to get that experience, to feel like you’re bouncing ideas off him while he’s actually standing next to you.”

Trion showcases Blake in a trio with Potter and bassist Linda May Han Oh, and was recorded at the Jazz Gallery by photographer, recording engineer and Giant Step Arts founder Jimmy Katz, a frequent DownBeat contributor.

The new album includes four Blake compositions, a version of his father’s “Blue Heart,” two by Potter, one by Oh, a version of Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and a 17-minute take on The Police’s “Synchronicity I,” which Potter and Blake have played together on tour. “It was a great opener [live] and a way to engage people, ’cause if you listen closely you’ll recognize it [and say] ‘Now I’m engaged, now I’m in a trance, now I want to see what they’re gonna do next.’”

While many pieces are muscular and hard-swinging, verging on free at times, Oh’s “Trope” is a throbbing mood piece that begins in near silence. “For me, that particular tune was something a little mysterious,” Oh said. “The way I wrote it was, the melody’s relatively simple, but it starts super low on the tenor, and then it has some other twists and turns, but it’s a simple, relatively open tune. They did such a great job with it—everyone was super sensitive with it.

“I can’t remember the first time I played with Johnathan, but I’ve played with him in quite a few contexts—including with Kenny Barron’s trio on various gigs and in slightly augmented versions of that—as well as with Dave Douglas and some other musicians,” Oh continued. “[Blake] has such an incredible feel—a beautiful, wide beat, but the snap to his playing is just incredible. It’s exciting to play with, super malleable but such a strong vibe. And Chris, he’s out of this world, such an incredible musician—incredible ears, but so quick. It was a great experience.”

Blake expressed a sense of astonishment at Giant Step Arts’ support of his new work: “Jimmy is really encouraging us to make this artistic statement—he really wants us to showcase our music. Record companies don’t want you to do that all the time, and people producing records don’t want you to do that—they want you to play tunes that everybody knows, and they don’t want to hear your original music. So, to have somebody give us so much space to do what we want to do was very special.” DB

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