Two’s company as the Virgin Islands’ most promising ex-pat keeps it acoustic, finding his voice through his pianist on his third album for Detroit’s Mack Avenue.
Shayari elevates Ron Blake among a distinguished lineage of West Indian jazzers gone abroad, from first generation Jamaicans like Joe Harriot and Harold McNair, through to the high priest of tropical soul-jazz, the late Jon Lucien. With Lucien’s baritone having long put the British Virgin Islands on the map, Blake’s saxophone is currently doing the same for the US Virgin Islands, and he wields a tentacle-like list of credits running from Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Smith and Betty Carter though Fela Kuti tribute, Red Hot + Riot and the recent soundtrack to Hector Lavoe biopic, El Cantante. Colonial distinctions aside, the downsized contexts of Shayari -- only Blake's fourth set as leader -- paint him as more of a classicist than any of those predecessors, favouring weighty but modest voicings which never give too much away; mannerly, if not quite mannered. The cover shot dusks his face in shadow, half turned and perfectly poised; a neat approximation of the music, itself arranged for acoustic trio and duo, and rooted in the synergy between Blake’s tenor and Michael Cain’s piano.
It’s a synergy obvious from the get-go, in the familial warmth of the opener, "Waltz for Gwen", first recorded for Blake's solo debut, Up Front & Personal, back in 2000, and here a serving as a touchstone linking back into the intimacy of his new partnerships, enriched with the trimmest of shavings from Brazilian percussionist Gilmar Gomes. Quite aside from the album’s preponderance of Eastern-mystical/poetic references, a near ten-minute exploration (going under the name "Atonement") inevitably arrives with associative intimations of John Coltrane, a reference which has always loomed large in Blake’s critical reception -- yet he merely flirts with cathartic intention, rather than letting it loose enough to affect the supplication-spikes of a Coltrane or a Pharoah Sanders; he’s too cool for that. He does blow up a venerable fervour on "Hanuman", routing stepped jabs through hair-trigger piano, and the bilious rumblings of guest legend Jack DeJohnette, but Blake more convincingly exhorts the spirit of Coltrane on "Abhaari", an all too short, Abdullah Ibrahim-esque epilogue in two parts. Cain ministers to him with a reverent subtlety, saving his sparest, most elegant playing for the last three minutes of the album, as (trailed by monastic gong and hovering around a tenative, sensuous dialogue which never quite resolves itself) the pair leave you hanging on for revelations you can’t help wishing they’d hinted at earlier.
Other famous pals/collaborators include Regina Carter ("Of Kindred Souls" has her chalky violin maneuvering with ungainly grace, wheeling around a naggingly fatalistic theme) and Christian McBride, yet it’s Cain who’s the constant, proving himself a faithful and redoubtable accompanist throughout, as well as producer, arranger and something of a mercurial stylist, engaging high flown lyricism, bop fluency or lowering percussive brawn as required. He’s likewise none too shabby a songwriter: "76" is an undeniable standout, its melodic structure echoing vintage Paulo Moura, and its groove buoying the album’s midriff when it might otherwise have sagged. The title is perhaps a reference to a time when Brazilian MPB icon Ivan Lins and his beardy peers made Rio fusion central; while Shayari features none of the Caribbean accents which flecked his earlier work, Blake still proves himself adept at interpreting material from outside the North American jazz tradition, even as he never really leaves it, and a composition like Lins’ "Island" allows for the kind of space and consideration his style craves, yielding all the breathy tenderness of a Ben Webster without blanding out.
If there’s one criticism, it’s that Blake's tone occasionally suggests refinement over emotion, intellect over impulse, but then perhaps that’s just the residue of such a flawless production and composed setting. Despite the Eastern trappings and big name cameos, Shayari is essentially a set of soulful, highly accomplished acoustic jazz, adventurous within its own borders, and announcing the ascendancy of a talent -- and a partnership -- for whom it will hopefully afford the leeway to spend less time on other people’s projects and more on his own.