Ron Blake: Sonic Tonic

Ron Blake
Sonic Tonic
Mack Avenue

Every generation of musicians faces one version or another of the dilemma: should I sell out? For jazz musicians, whose mainstream careers are not lucrative, it is a particularly pointed choice. But many of today’s most inventive jazz musicians are finding that combining their passion with some popular influences need not lead them astray. Ron Blake is one of these happy and hip innovators.

Sonic Tonic represents an unusually pleasing form of hybrid jazz, which is to say that it just sounds like jazz. When jazz is really working well, it easily accommodates other styles and influences, and this disc incorporates a full range of less than straight-ahead flavors. It surely helps that the disc was produced by the eclectic and vibrant alternative-funk bandleader Me’Shell NdegéOcello.

Me’Shell NdegéOcello? You mean the bisexual bassist and Madonna-label signee who duetted with John “Cougar” Mellencamp while retaining her funky street cred? Yeah. Who KNEW she was into jazz? Well, OK, maybe we did know. Josh Redman appeared on her debut disc just when he was the tenor saxophone young lion star. While nobody would have ever called NdegéOcello ‘s music “jazz”, there has always been an open-minded feel and slippery rhythmic swing to her music. You absolutely believe she is a jazz fan. And now, on her debut as a producer, she’s made a terrific jazz record.

This is a jazz record, not a fusion exercise or even a NdegéOcello album with lead saxophone. The only flourish that seems very NdegéOcello -ish is the very first sound on the recording — a gently swirling synth that wafts over the acoustic bass. But it’s the bass line that digs in for keeps on the opener, a decidedly Coltranesque modal piece that is utterly without compromise. The acoustic bass throughout the record is manned by Christian McBride (in whose band Mr. Blake has played), and he doubles the melody on this original opener. Drummer Chris Dave is like Elvin’s younger brother, playing polyrhythms with a light touch, and the piece weaves through several episodes, as if Mr. Blake were paying homage to A Love Supreme. His tenor voice is deep brown in tone — clear but dark-colored, essentially, crying in the upper ranges but usually close to Earth, surely grounded.

Other than Mr. Blake, the only musician who appears on every track is pianist Michael Cain, previously a sideman with Jack DeJohnette and a player with great moments but no defining performances (at least that I have heard). Here, he is invaluable, flying all over nearly every track like some mad combination of Hancock, Tyner, and maybe the Jan Hammer of John Abercrombie’s classic Timeless album. Hammer comes to mind because Cain uses the electric organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano in a seamless array with the acoustic to color each song in perfect — but somewhat gentle — pastels. On “Chasing the Sun”, Cain drops trebly piano accents one moment, oozing organ or synth chords the next, then tears off a line of counterpoint too. Though the song features Blake’s tenor and David Gilmore’s guitar twinned in the front line, it’s Cain who mediates the thing and makes it. The title track and “Pissaro’s Floor” feature the same line-up (though with Reuben Rogers on bass rather than McBride), and all three tracks are highlights. The former is a loose reggae groove that eases into its loopy melody only halfway through before segueing into a stuttering solo by Cain. The latter is a gorgeous Rhodes-dominated ballad that gives both Cain and drummer Greg Hutchinson the chance to fill the studio with an atmosphere of rich texture.

On “Dance of Passion” (a tune that makes both a titular and compositional nod to the classic McCoy Tyner song) and “Tom Blake (Revisited)”, Blake has constructed a small big-band sound that suggests another of Blake’s influences. Both tunes are syncopated grooves that bring to mind Abdullah Ibrahim’s bluesy township jazz. But by using Cain on Rhodes on both songs, the songs have a funky and contemporary sound that sets them apart.

Perhaps the most surprising track on Sonic Tonic is the ballad feature for Blake and Cain, “The Windmills of Your Mind”. A hit a generation ago for Dusty Springfield, this Michel LeGrand tune has never quite become a jazz standard. The quartet plays the tune out of tempo at first until McBride and Dave find an ambiguous groove over the B section and Blake’s solo. When the main melody returns, Cain harmonizes it more completely, and the performance shifts from a sneaky Shorter-ish kind of question to an answer: that this is a song that should be played much more by improvisers.

The duet for Black and Cain, the Anthony Newley tune “Pure Imagination”, is an equally bold choice. You may recall this tune from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — hardly the source we would expect either a serious jazz saxophonist or his mad-funky soul producer to consider. But it is the best kind of revelation. Cain spins acoustic gold around the melody, and Blake plays the tune with a kind of reverence. It completes an album of remarkable variation that, nevertheless, primarily features Blake’s clear, beaming voice.

So, am I saying that Me’Shell NdegéOcello produced an almost entirely straight ahead jazz record? Yes — but then no. A limited edition copy is available with a five-track bonus disc featuring remixes of three tunes. “Dance of Passion” is given the treatment by Casamena, then Brother and Sister Forever. The first version layers a funky-sampled bayou-ish beat under much of the piece, giving it a more percussion heavy mix but not much else. The second version starts with a syncopated house feel, layered with hand percussion effects. The tuba line enters, then leaves. When the horn line finally comes in, the feeling is exotic but electronic — much more random and pulled-apart than the first. It’s more different — but less successful.

DJ Spinna and Yoruba Soul Samba both take on “Tom Blake”. Spinna gives the snappy tune a clicky-clacky rhythm track that, after a while, makes you kind of itchy. Ick. The Yoruba version takes Mr. Blake down to Brazil, with a complex samba groove that allows the remix to have you rehear the tune and the improvising. The addition of a spoken introduction (making clear that “Tom” is Ron’s dad) works, but the “Tom Blake” chant added over the tenor and trombone solos and tag detracts, as do the synthed strings over the ensemble. The remix of the title track may be the best effort, as Sonic Dub breaks “Sonic Tonic” apart into its various parts and abstracts the reggae groove so that it has more backbeat than the original. As with most projects like this, the remix that seems most worth the effort is the one that departs most wholly from the original.

Me’Shell — nice work. Ron Blake — when are you coming to town?

RATING 7 / 10