Johnathan Blake: Story Teller

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“My dad is always going to be a part of me and my music, especially since I still have so many manuscripts of his to explore,” says Johnathan Blake, who notes that he too has much more to explore.

(Photo: David Ellis)

For Johnathan Blake, every record is an act of remembrance. Over the past two decades, the Philadelphia-born and New York-based drummer and composer has imbued his work with the imprint of his mentors, channelling everything from the fierce rhythmic urge of Charles Mingus’ music to Pharoah Sanders’ spiritual freedom, the deep groove of Roy Hargrove to the swing of Ralph Peterson Jr.

“Our job as musicians is to be storytellers. We have to take the listener on a journey,” Blake says over a video call from his home. “When I’m writing, I’m putting my personality and everything about myself on paper. It’s a document of who I am and the people who have made me.”

Blake’s latest album, Passage, contains his most personal story so far by paying tribute to his late father, the jazz violinist John Blake Jr. Since 2018, Blake has been incorporating his father’s compositions into his records, paying homage to his work with the likes of Grover Washington Jr. and McCoy Tyner. Yet, following Blake’s 2021 debut for Blue Note, Homeward Bound, he decided it was time to delve further into the legacy his father left behind after his death in 2014.

Homeward Bound began a process of using my music to celebrate those who are no longer with us,” Blake says. “That album was dedicated to the life and legacy of [saxophonist] Jimmy Greene’s and [flutist] Nelba Marquez’s daughter Ana Grace, who was tragically killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Passage is a continuation of that ethos of dedication and celebration, this time focused on my dad.”

Rather than settle in an elegiac mood, Blake’s musical tributes are infused with life and a surging sense of vitality. On Homeward Bound’s title track, for instance, Blake builds on bassist Dezron Douglas’ skittering motif to produce a rapturous nine minutes of melodic ascendance, anchored in the trade-off between saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. “I don’t want to make these records sombre,” Blake says. “They are compositions embodying what people were like when they were alive, not just the feeling of when they are gone.”

Growing up as the eldest of three siblings in late-’70s Philadelphia, Blake remembers his father as the center of the family and the local musical community. “He was a sweetheart. He treated everybody like they were family and everybody loved him because he was just this big teddy bear,” Blake says with a smile. “His students became an extension of my siblings, since he was always so welcoming.”

That openness extended to Blake Jr.’s music, as well as his teaching. At work, his gigs might veer from straightahead jazz to funk and even Top 40 pop, while at home he would take Blake and his sisters to watch the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as Michael Jackson. “My parents exposed us to so many different types of music because it was a reflection of their own upbringings where they were surrounded by dance and music and poetry,” he says. “My dad stressed to me at an early age that you need to be open to what’s happening so that you can play in any setting.”

Although Blake initially took up his father’s instrument of the violin at age 3, he found himself banging on pots and pans and soon switched to the drums. As Blake developed his ear for everything from Motown to Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bartók and Beethoven, his father stressed the necessity of composition alongside work as an instrumentalist. “He was one of the first people to encourage me to start exploring writing because he knew the importance of showcasing your own voice in this music,” Blake says. “At a very young age he would show me different chords on the piano, and from there he gave me the blueprint to start creating my own work.”

On Passage, the development of that blueprint is fully present. The title track is one of Blake Jr.’s, weaving together complex harmonies with an earworming melody, while Blake’s Latin-inflected drumming drives forward a unifying sense of groove. On other numbers written by Blake, like the sprawling “Muna And Jona’s Playtime” (named after Blake’s two children) or the soulful and airy “West Berkley St.,” that same tension between density and lightness is ever-present, between thought and instinctual enjoyment. Like father, like son.

If Blake Jr. planted the seeds for his son’s compositional dexterity, it was coming up in the ’90s Philly music scene that truly cemented his skills. “Philadelphia was amazing back then, since there were so many different genres of music happening and it wasn’t separate, we all knew each other,” Blake says. “I would play house parties and standing next to me would be Questlove spinning while I was playing along with the record. It was all just music.”

As a result of playing through that melting pot, Blake is still reluctant to refer to himself solely as a jazz drummer. “I see myself as playing the music first and foremost,” he says. “I go into each situation not trying to play just one particular way and that’s how I can work with Q-Tip and then turn around and do something with Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.”

Indeed, Blake’s CV zigzags through some of the most exciting and varied artists of the past 50 years, covering the spectrum of jazz and genres beyond the realm of improvisation. He has played with everyone from Pharoah Sanders to Dr., Lonnie Smith, Oded Tzur, Ravi Coltrane and Bill Frisell. He has recorded on Q-Tip’s 2009 solo album Kamaal The Abstract, one created after the MC had left A Tribe Called Quest. On the day of this interview, Blake had just arrived back from a Japanese tour with Kenny Barron sporting a T-shirt with the album cover for A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory.

It seems that from each gig and mentor, Blake has taken away more than just merchandise. He speaks fondly of the late Roy Hargrove, who rang up 19-year-old Blake in his college dorm room at William Paterson University to ask him to join his band. “Roy was all about never sacrificing the groove no matter what you’re playing,” Blake says. “Even if you’re playing straightahead, make it feel good because it’s supposed to be dance music. He was such a soulful guy and he always played the perfect thing on any given solo that he would take.”

Blake developed his rock-solid rhythmic foundations on Hargrove’s gigs. During his time in the early 2000s with the Mingus Big Band — where he appeared on their Grammy-nominated albums Tonight At Noon … (Dreyfus, 2007) and I Am Three (Sunnyside, 2005) — he learned the art of dealing with the ensemble. “I was 21 when I got that gig, and it was a big learning experience,” he says. “I had to give the band energy and push 14 members to new heights. I was very green and some of those guys could be hard on you.” So hard that Blake recalls a fight breaking out backstage before one gig, with the ruckus kicking up so much noise that one reviewer thought the group was listening to a recording of Mingus himself going off at his band as inspiration before the show. “There was a lot going on behind the scenes,” he laughs. “I always tell people, if I can survive that band, I can survive anything.”

Thankfully, it’s apparent that Blake is far easier on his own intergenerational band Pentad, with which he has recorded both Homeward Bound and Passage. “It was so important for me coming up to have mentors and people who would take me under their wing, which is why I wanted players like Immanuel and Joel in the group,” he says. “I first met Immanuel when he was just a kid, and I was delivering a master class at the Lovell Hines Youth Ensemble in Philly. I knew even then that he would be great and once he and Joel formed their own bonds playing in bands in New York, I knew we had to all get together.”

Rounding out the group is bassist Dezron Douglas and pianist David Virelles, with whom Blake has been collaborating for the better part of a decade since first playing together in Ravi Coltrane’s group. “We’re all part of a brotherhood, and we come together with the purpose of trying to create the most honest and organic music possible,” he says. “From Homeward Bound to this latest record, you can hear the growth in our sound and you can hear the bond that has gotten tighter. We’re all producing a very open-ended dialogue.”

It is ultimately all encapsulated in the title of his latest record. Denoting the transition from one state to another, the movement between and onwards, Passage is the perfect expression not only of Blake’s capacity for appreciating those who have come and gone before him, but also a gesture toward his ever-changing future. “My dad is always going to be a part of me and my music, especially since I still have so many manuscripts of his to explore,” he says. “But there are also so many other people and aspects of my life to celebrate.”

With the recent premiere of a new group (which performed a suite of Blake’s social justice-inspired music at the Village Vanguard last fall) as well as plans for orchestral compositions and a new tour, Blake continues to gather fresh material for the deeply personal, highly inspiring stories he tells so well. DB



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