Johnathan Blake 2021
Photo: David Ellis / Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Drummer Johnathon Blake Is ‘Homeward Bound’

Johnathon Blake’s Blue Note debut, Homeward Bound, takes soulful jazz from the past, adds the complexity of the present with intelligence and adventure.

Homeward Bound
Johnathon Blake
Blue Note
10 September 2021

What if Eric Dolphy, the quirky alto saxophone firebrand of the 1960s, had lived a bit longer and had joined forces with Creed Taylor in the early 1970s to make records that were both challenging yet had the slippery sheen of a Fender Rhodes and included blues-drenched vibes solos from Milt Jackson? That sounds incredible to me, and yet here it is just 50 years later from drummer and composer Johnathan Blake.

Blake is not exactly a “young lion”. He has been pianist Kenny Barron’s drummer of choice for 15 years and has worked with veterans such as Oliver Lake, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Roy Hargrove, and David Sanchez. Still, in listening to his Blue Note Records debut alongside both contemporaries and two young, rising stars in creative music, the sensation is one of hearing a fresh voice. That voice seems capable of picking and choosing from some of the best creative music of the last 60 years and, with the new Homeward Bound, turning it into something fresh.

“Shakin’ the Biscuits” is a mid-tempo boogaloo that could have come right off of a Lee Morgan album. It is downhome funky on the comfortingly bluesy theme, and you might be thinking, “Well, cool, I dig this, but it really is just a copy of a track off a ’70s CTI album by Milt Jackson.” But everything else about the track is deliciously up-to-the-minute. The impressionistic introduction finds Immanuel Wilkens playing alto saxophone on a coolly-angled Steve Coleman tip. Once the head is over the band move into a jam that flies off into ten directions, with Virelles playing a wriggling synth line and the rhythm fragmenting into several moving parts as the harmony opens up into dissonance.

Homeward Bound features a quintet of Blake, Wilkins, bassist Dezron Douglas, pianist David Virelles, Joel Ross on vibes. Ross and Wilkins are the youngsters here, both already signed to Blue Note with gorgeous early recordings under their belts. Virelles, the Cuban-born pianist, has a long history in New York, working with a broad group of musicians from Henry Threadgill and Jonathan Finlayson to Chris Potter and Jane Bunnett and recording as a solo artist for ECM. Bassist Douglas has worked with Blake for some time and is also a mainstay on the New York scene. Though Black is the oldest and a leader, everyone in this group is a star.

And Blake has given them hip material that makes this one of the finest outings for every one of these musicians. Blake’s compositions and arrangements are utterly of the moment but have the appeal of meat-and-potatoes hard bop from that earlier time. They beautifully straddle the complex “new jazz” of the last 20 years (complex metric shifts, a simultaneous embrace of complex harmony and harmonic freedom, and a pan-stylistic reach) with, well, the kind of jazz soulfulness that folks associate with those old, funky Blue Note and CTI recordings of 50 years ago.

Check out “LLL”, which pops with uptempo swing, the melody curving and jabbing as it delights your ears. However, the stops and turns come at unusual intervals, and the fast-walking swing is undeniably old-school and yet not in standard 4/4 time. By contrast, “Rivers and Parks” is a mid-tempo theme that is gently tonal in its hummable melody. Yet, the shifting quality of the groove (anchored by Virelles on Rhodes) brings to mind the hip-hop hints suggesting Robert Glasper‘s influence as much as any old Blue Note stalwart.

Each band member exhibits a similar range, which can also be thought of as a refusal to embrace a single camp in what used to be the silly jazz wars. Wilkens, for example, is an alto saxophonist with a ripe, sweet tone that suggests Cannonball Adderley and Steve Wilson. At the same time, he is plainly influenced by the quicksilver rhythms and patterning of alto masters Steve Coleman and Steve Lehman, with perhaps a touch of the vinegar tone of Henry Threadgill or Jackie McLean. When he busts out his solo on “Rivers and Parks”, there is a shade of shock to it, as well as soulfulness. His playing is inclusive of approaches that once might have seemed at odds with each other, but Wilkins has built an individual musical identity that summarizes Ornette Coleman/Julius Hemphill and Johnny Hodges.

Similarly, even as Joel Ross seems like a natural successor to Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson, his playing also reflects hip-hop rhythms and the freedoms of post-bop and outplaying. The beautiful “Homeward Bound (for Ana Grace)” (titled for the daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene, who died in a pointless school shooting) surges with an irregular groove. Ross trades phrases with Wilkins in the improvised section, crackling with as much bracing modernity as any soloist you could imagine. He doesn’t negate the sense that his instrument is a set of gorgeous ringing bells, but he pushes against any thought that his instruments can’t be as modern and “free” as a horn.

To these ears, pianist David Virelles creates the strongest impression as a musician consolidating a vast array of references and historical precedent and working it all into a clear identity. On the title track, Virelles uses Blake’s sunny theme to spin a ruminative solo that’s complexly entwined with the leader’s percussive accompaniment. He begins with wandering lines that evoke the modern masters Hancock and Corea, turning in surprising directions with a lyricism that still dares to rub somewhat against the prescribed harmonies. Then, however, the solo moves into more percussive territory, ideally setting up the drum solo over a montuno. Aren’t piano solos all, really, drum solos as well?

Blake comes through as a composer and arranger of invention and range. “Abiyoyo” is a swaying and simple tune that brings to mind Abdullah Ibrahim, with the leader playing tumbling toms as if he were a hand drummer. And Blake reinvents a rock hit of the 1980s, Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out”, so that its surging melody is folded into an Afro-Cuban bass line for Virelles left hand and Douglas’s bass in unison. Fans of the song won’t have any trouble recognizing it with joy, yet the new arrangement makes a ton of sense for a group of improvisers now. Wilkins takes it for an elliptical ride, playing around the edges and letting the rhythm section come to him, leading to an increasingly intense climax in which Wilkins seems to be playing call-and-response with himself and then swirling up into a raspy ecstasy. It may be the album’s “pop cover”, but so too is it the very longest track, with an improvisation that leaves you exhausted but happy.

Homeward Bound is the kind of New Jazz that suggests that not all the fresh creative music is fixed on academic complexity that leaves audiences behind. Sure, it’s art music, not smooth jazz. But tell me that a buttery boogaloo built on a grooving bassline and a Bob-James-ish electric piano can’t find some listeners. Johnathan Blake is doing that with intelligence and adventure.

RATING 8 / 10