Michael Blake
  • Chris Drukker
  • Michael Blake

The jazz world is filled with immensely skilled musicians who spend most of their careers in relative anonymity because they never manage to establish a truly original voice. They may be peerless sidemen—playing charts perfectly and delivering solid solos—but if and when they lead a band there’s nothing about the music that distinguishes it from the past or present. There’s a much smaller class of musicians who do distinguish themselves, but for one reason or another they don’t attract a wide following despite earning the respect and admiration of fellow musicians. It bums me out that saxophonist Michael Blake seems stuck in this category, because over the last 15 years or so he’s amassed a dazzling, distinctive body of work that’s consistently brought me pleasure and provoked me to think about the various concepts behind his disparate projects.

The Canadian native first made his name as a member of the final phase of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards in the early 90s, but since stepping out on his own with his 1997 album Kingdom of Champa he’s steadily sharpened a distinctive voice as a composer and improviser. Blake isn’t an iconoclast or a trailblazer—he’s always worked within the jazz tradition to accomplish his ideas, generally with mild-mannered eloquence (although his searing 2005 album Right Before Your Very Eyes, recorded as a trio with Ben Allison and Jeff Ballard, proved he could bring serious heat and extroversion to his playing as well). His latest quartet album Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside) provides an excellent illustration of his tendency to revisit figures of the past through a contemporary lens (his great 2008 album The World Awakes took on the music of the brilliant saxophonist Lucky Thompson), serving up eight tunes that pay homage to two more geniuses of the tenor saxophone: Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. The pieces were composed through a 2013 Chamber Music America commission as part of a suite he titled Contrasts in Individualism. The album title is a corruption of one of Young’s many coinages—Blake noticed the saxophonist request that a drummer give me a “little tickity boom, please” in an old film clip.

In typical fashion Blake makes no effort to imitate those key influences, and while some of his tunes explicitly evoke earlier eras in jazz (the irresistibly slinking, bluesy opener “Skinny Dip,” which you can hear below, actually reminds me of something that Chicago tenor great Johnny Griffin might’ve written, but with a lighter, swing-oriented feel), the record doesn’t reduce itself to some zoot-suited postswing cliché. A terrific band supports Blake, bassist Ben Allison (who brings his own strong quartet to the Green Mill next weekend), pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Rudy Royston, and they pivot easily from one stylistic mode to another. “The Ambassadors” rolls on a strong gospel feel, with forceful yet ebullient playing from the pianist; “Hawk’s Last Rumba” is a gorgeous ballad that highlights the saxophonist’s tone at its warmest and breathiest; “Coastline” references the west coast with its brisk, slaloming melody played in deft unison by saxophone and piano; and the classic swing feel of “A Good Day for Pres” is persistently injected with blasts of New Orleans parade rhythms by Royston. Tiddy Boom is probably too subtle to alter Blake’s fortunes in any serious way, which is a shame, because not only is it one of the year’s best jazz albums, but it’s another gem in a career filled with them. I wish more listeners would take notice.

Today’s playlist:

Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, Schumann: Violin Sonatas (Ondine)
Bérangère Maximin, Infinitesimal (Sub Rosa)
James Ehnes and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Britten & Shostakovich: Violin Concertos (Onyx)
Laurel Halo, Chance of Rain (Hyperdub)
Rudolf Buchbinder, Schubert: Impromptus D 899/Sonata D 960 (Sony Classical)