Chat for even just a half-hour with one of today’s top saxophonists and you are as likely to hear the names “Young” and “Hawkins” as you are to hear “Coltrane”, “Rollins”, or (for a more contemporary influence) “Brecker”. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, the yin and yang of the jazz saxophone tradition of the swing era, live in every player, one way or another.
Tiddy Boom is the latest recording from a mid-career master of the moment, tenor and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake. Blake has made superb music in recent years, usually music that uses elements of rock, shifting time signatures, advanced forms, or any manner of elements that are not necessarily “mainstream”. For two brilliant releases from the Canadian-born New Yorker, check out Amor de Cosmos (2007) or 2012’s In the Grand Scheme of Things, both from Songlines.
His latest, however, looks into history: a tribute to Young and Hawkins through a commission funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Tiddy Boom is a set of tunes originally titled “Contrasts in Individualism”. Working with his old Jazz Composers Collective mates Frank Kimbrough (piano) and Ben Allison (bass) as well as drummer Rudy Royston, Blake has crafted a canny set of brand new tunes that channel “Pres” and “Bean” without sounding old. Goodness knows, those two masters were always fresh. And so this music, which leaps over a few styles and feels, comes off not as a throwback or reclamation project but rather as a way of alluding to old masters in a fresh way.
And, hoooo, this is a swinging album. “Coastline” is a tricky bebop theme, played in unison by Kimbrough’s Monk-ish right hand and Blake’s tenor (his only horn on this project), perhaps reminiscent of the band for which Hawkins hired the young Thelonious. Blake jumps out with a feather-light solo that outlines the chord structure in a linear way, strolling atop bass and drums without piano accompaniment. Then Kimbrough jumps in with just a single-note line. The two soloists trade eight-bar statements for a while, then they just play together in an undulating, contrapuntal duet. Slick!
“A Good Day for Pres” is a hip 12-bar blues that uses a call-and-response theme between tenor and piano that evokes “Lester Leaps In” just a bit, but Blake is not content to just make this a blowing date. The tenor solo, therefore, is accompanied by Allison’s bass only, with the leader using a set of gorgeous modern multi-phonic effects as he improvises. Kimbrough chooses to solo in a stride style before the theme returns. But they’re not done there: the last quarter of the arrangement finds tenor and piano playing the tune’s signature lick in a host of wild variations as Royston solos to close out.
A few tunes here have the splendid and relaxed stroll that has become kind of rare on the contemporary scene. “Hawk’s Last Rumba” works its way into such a slow groove, and man is it spacious. At the start of the second chorus of his solo, Blake starts to kick it into double-time and then pulls back into tempo, with Allison’s walk confident and right on the time. The opener, “Skinny Dip” is set at a similar tempo but in a cut-time feel, with Royston owning the tune with his control on the hi-hat cymbals and Kimbrough coloring the theme with the kind of blues commentary you would have expected from Bobby Timmons. When the tune kicks into straight 4/4 time, your blood runs that much faster in your veins.
There isn’t really a genuine ballad on Tiddy Boom. “Letters in Disguise” begins as a tempo-less theme with a hint of Coltrane to it, shifts into gorgeous balladry, but then it also swings in its mid-section: another complex structure. Here and everywhere, however, this recording drips with lyricism and romantic playing. As successful as the band is at creating texture and playing with tempo, the melodic content trumps on just about every tune. And we could use more of that in jazz, right?
The feel on the closing tune is something you would have never heard on a Young or Hawkins record. “The Ambassadors” sports the kind of busy gospel-funk ecstasy that Keith Jarrett patented back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it is infectious. The groove is fast and syncopated on the opening theme and tenor solo, but then it cuts back to a half-time groove for the piano solo, with Allison and Royston trading accents and backbeat throbs and cracks like they were auditioning for a new version of Medeski, Martin, and Wood.
All these moments are ones that, I suppose, you might have heard on jazz records of fifty years ago, sixty years ago, maybe farther back still. But that’s okay — to every jazz recording is about innovation. And, besides, there is plenty here that refracts and reworks tradition in sharp, knowing ways. Most importantly, every track rethinks its influences through the voice of a mature, individual player. Michael Blake never vanishes behind his influences. His own sound is front and center.
And that, of course, is how you become an influence yourself, which is a status Michael Blake has undoubtedly already earned with younger players.