Michael Blake: The Saxophonist as Record Executive


Michael Blake’s Chroma Nova, from left, Guilherme Monteiro, Skye Steele, Michael Bates, Mauro Refosco, Michael Blake, Christopher Hoffman and Rogerio Boccato.

(Photo: Marc Santos)

Over the course of four decades, from his early-’90s stint with the Lounge Lizards, subsequent recordings with the Herbie Nichols Project and Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel to his numerous recordings as a leader — from 1997’s Kingdom Of Champa, 2001’s Drift, 2002’s Elevated and 2005’s Right Before Your Eyes to 2014’s Tiddy Boom, 2016’s Fulfillment and 2022’s Combobulate — saxophonist-composer Michael Blake has been associated with a myriad of labels, including Intuition, Knitting Factory Works, Clean Feed, Stunt, Songlines, Sunnyside and Newvelle. His latest release, Dance Of The Mystic Bliss, is his debut on P&M Records, the label he formed in December 2021 with his older brother Paul.

A striking septet recording for violin, cello, bass, guitar, saxophones and flute and featuring dual Brazilian percussionists in Rogerio Boccato and Mauro Refosco, Dance Of The Mystic Bliss is dedicated to Blake’s mother, Merle, who passed away in 2018. Written and recorded before 2022’s Combobulate on Newvelle, it almost didn’t come to fruition. “I was hesitant to put this record out,” Blake explained. “It’s an album dedicated to our mom, a retired dancer who was also a singer, gardener and an amazing role model for us. But I finally got over my initial fear that it was too personal of a subject to make into a commodity. Because the whole purpose of making music is to disseminate it.”

Blake came to that realization with the help of music publicist Matt Merewitz, founder and director of Fully Altered Media. “Paul and I had really good guidance throughout the process from Matt,” Blake said. “He was really in my corner in terms of just believing in the music and really digging my saxophone playing. He was like, ‘Come on, people want to hear you wail, man. Get that saxophone music out into the world.’ Matt connected it to a little Michael Brecker influence, even though I don’t think I imitate Michael at all in my playing. But I do think that Michael’s spirit is in there a little bit.”

Dance Of The Mystic Bliss follows the pattern of Blake’s previous concept albums like Kingdom Of Champa (reflections on a month-long stay in Vietnam), In The Grand Scheme Of Things (a cinematic mini-suite inspired by a trip to Zambia for Paul’s wedding) and Amore de Cosmos (rooted in his boyhood memories of British Columbia). And while this latest project was written in response to his mother’s death, the music is often buoyant and uplifting rather than brooding and requiem-like. “After my mum passed away in 2018, I felt a complete collapse in ambition to release new music, and I was processing that loss for almost two years,” he explained. “In early 2020, I got a grant from The Canada Council for the Arts and then COVID hit. So it was just a timing thing where I was fortunate to have something to distract me as the world reeled from the global pandemic. I composed all the music during the shutdown and we recorded it in the fall of that year when we were allowed to gather in groups again. And I ended up writing music that was really quite joyous. I think that was my way of responding to both the pandemic and the loss of my mom.”

Blake’s idea for replacing drum set with two Brazilian percussionists came after a pre-pandemic performance that his Chroma Nova septet gave at The Stone in Manhattan. “I realized on that gig that the drum set was just too loud and too intense for the strings to play, especially in an acoustic situation where the strings aren’t miked. So I decided to make the whole thing lighter by just using a percussionist. That’s when I started using Rogerio Boccato, who brought in his sit-down hybrid kit with the cajon, pandeiro and a wonderful combination of other percussion instruments that he uses in different combinations with his hands and sticks. And then I brought in Mauro Refosco as a special guest, and they sounded fantastic together. I had these little germs of rhythmic ideas that I had done in Logic as a basic sort of vibe, and then they would expand on that. I would never have known where to have the metal triangle and where to have the conga and all these things that they just do instinctively. And to have that authentic samba school vibe on the record was so cool.”

A radically divergent project from Blake’s 2022 swaggering and celebratory brass band outing, Combobulate — a double-tuba project featuring Marcus Rojas and Bob Stewart with Clark Gayton on trombone, Allan Mednard on drums and longtime colleague and frequent collaborator Steven Bernstein on trumpet — Dance Of The Mystic Bliss is an excursion into world music exotica with a churning Afro-Brazilian undercurrent, courtesy of Boccato and Refosco (on zabumba bass drum, berimbau and marimba). Augmented by Guilherme Monteiro’s versatile electric guitar work (including a nasty, bent-string, John Scofield-like solo on “Little Demons”) and the entrancing strings of cellist Christopher Hoffman and violinist Sky Steele (who also plays rabeka and gonji on two tunes), it’s a compelling mesh on top of which Blake launches into some of his boldest tenor solos to date (particularly on “Merle The Pearl,” “Love Finally Arrives” and the Michael Brecker-ish “Little Demons”). He also delivers potent soprano sax solos on “The Heart Of The Garden,” “Topanga Burns” and “Cleopatra” and is heard soloing on flute for the first time on record as leader on “The Meadows” and the evocative “Prune Pluck Pangloss.”

Regarding the formation of P&M Records, Michael feels it was the next step in the brothers’ ongoing adventure. “We grew up with music. When my brother and I were kids, we moved around a lot between Canada and California after my parents got divorced. Usually I was with my mom in Vancouver, but every summer I’d see my brother in California. And each summer he was into a different style of music. One summer he would be a hippie into Hendrix, then the next year his hair is short, he’s wearing pleated trousers and is into salsa. He’s listening to Ray Barretto and Fania Records and having friends come over for dance parties. Meanwhile, I had my hair long and was playing Frampton Comes Alive, which was the big record of that summer. And I’m like, ‘Man, I can never get it right with this guy.’”

Michael did eventually get swept up by salsa music himself, and when he moved to New York in 1987 he became immersed on the salsa and merengue scenes. “I was playing with Charlie Sepulveda a lot back then and [fellow saxophonist] Jay Rodriguez would hook me up with other gigs.”

And now it’s a beautiful kind of coming-full-circle that Michael’s new release on P&M Records captures some of that musical flavor that he and Paul both fell in love with when they 13 and 15 years old.

With Paul currently based in London and Michael in Manhattan, the Blake brothers are poised to build on Michael’s catalogue with new works like Dance Of The Mystic Bliss and reissue older works like 2010’s Hellbent, 2006’s Blake Tartare, 2002’s Elevated, Slow Poke’s 1998 debut At Home and Blake’s soundtrack to John Rubino’s 2016 film Vodka Rocks.

“I own the masters on about half the albums under my name,” Blake said. “So Paul and I decided we would release my back catalog first before this new album. I’m not sure what we’re going to do next, whether we’ll want to release somebody else’s music or do another one of my albums down the road. I’ve got to talk to Paul about that.” DB

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December 2023
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