Saxophonist Michael Blake, a Canadian-born New Yorker, could be a poster boy for the serious and successful jazz musician of the moment. He got his break by playing for John Lurie’s downtown outfit the Lounge Lizards in 1990, his debut record included serious investigation of Vietnamese music, he has backed the likes of Chubby Checker and Jack McDuff, and he has played prominently with jazz bands as diverse as Medeski, Martin, and Wood and the Gil Evans Orchestra. He is both omnivorous and highly distinctive. Like so much of the best jazz today, Blake’s music knows few boundaries.
Amor de Cosmos may be the best disc of Blake’s career so far. It combines a happy diversity of approaches with a single distinctive instrumentation. As a result, it coheres as a single work and entertains like a collage. The glue is a wonderful band of Canadian musicians, including Sal Ferreras on marimba and percussion and Chris Gestrin on Fender Rhodes and electronics as well as piano. The sextet sounds, for the most past, like a strong jazz group, but the flavor of electronics, mixed with the woody bells of Ferreras precise percussion, also marks the band as one-of-a-kind. The array of different rhythms and compositional approaches, however, makes the disc a varied collection of music.
What more do you want? Michael Blake has an identity, yet within that identity he works variegated magic.
At least two of the songs have a highly structured sound that creates a little movie in your head. “Temporary Constellation” begins in an intricate pattern of 10/8 time that sets marimba in Steve Reich-ian counterpoint, then it shifts to a jazz 9/8 time that allows drummer Dylan van der Schyff to swing against all odds. The groove shifts to tenor and manipulated piano in unison while the muted trumpet plays a composed line. Then an improvised solo. So: it’s not your father’s jazz. “Paddy Pie Face” sounds even more “composed”, like a modern classical piece with a generous sense of humor. Gestrin and Blake play jerking unisons that sound like a whiskified duck on a leash, with the improvised portion going to a duet between bassist Andre Lachance and van der Schyff.
Two other songs, in contrast, are wholly improvised, exploring the textures that are possible when instruments are played outside convention. Both “Ghostlines” and “The Hunt” give Blake the chance to whisper, growl, screech, and waver on his horn—but always with a stunning quietness that we don’t tend to associate with “free” playing. Gestrin accompanies on a combination of acoustic and electric instruments, also investigating the extremities of technique without getting bombastic or pretentious.
Between these free and highly structured approaches, Blake creates sound sets that range from ballad (“Infirmary”) to skittering-then-swinging dance (“So Long Seymour”) to smiling African groove (“The Wash Away”). “The Wash Away” is so pleasant and easy to bop your head to that it feels almost too nice. Gestrin plays a ringing Fender Rhodes, and the trumpet solo by Brad Turner has songful joy at its very center. But there is nothing “smooth” or weak about the song. It is surrounded by plenty of other taxing music, and even in its out-chorus, Blake serves up a tenor statement that brings in a bit of a chaotic wind. The variety feels great. In short, every song is quite different—odd tempo workouts, water color ballads, herky-jerky fun, purely improvised texture—and every song draws you back to the idea that jazz today maintains the pleasures of swing without every being slave to formula.
Amor de Cosmos was recorded a couple of years ago in Blake’s home province of British Columbia. Despite being imported from the north, it stands firmly the line of the superbly smart and diverse “downtown” music that has been coming from the likes of Dave Douglas, Steve Bernstein, and Ben Allison in recent years. It incorporates both rock and avant-garde elements with equal ease while maintaining melodic interest and the excitement of post-bop improvising.
I would very much like to claim that these kinds of records are now a dime-a-dozen, as the downtown scene has now clearly mastered this kind of collaged brilliance, mixing and matching contemporary musical styles into mutt-jazz of the most interesting sort. But the latest from Michael Blake stands apart for its fresh instrumentation and the intelligence of its improvising. This is a terrific record.
Is it the first all-Canadian jazz classic? Hey, I don’t know any others!