Thunderous Tunesmithing with Johnathan Blake’s Trio at the Jazz Gallery
What’s the likelihood that tenor sax powerhouse Chris Potter would find himself onstage with two other equally formidable tunesmiths? That happened last night at the Jazz Gallery, in an ecstatically pulsing, rumbling, thundering trio set with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer/bandleader Johnathan Blake.
Another way to look at it is to ask how recently a drummer-led, chordless trio sold out a major Manhattan jazz venue – which was also the case last night. The premise of photographer/engineer Jimmy Katz’s new non-profit Giant Step Arts’ new Jazz Gallery series, which Blake’s trio inaugurated over the past couple of evenings, is to provide ambitious, outside-the-box artists with “What a record label would have done for them in the 90s,” as Katz put it before the show. From a two-night stand, a bandleader gets professional quality audio, video, a press kit, a live album and cds to sell.
What Katz didn’t say is that back in the 90s, an awful lot of up-and-coming jazz composers were locked out of that establishment because they thought too far outside the box, so this is an auspicious development. The upcoming slate of performers is also auspicious: alto sax titan Rudresh Mahanthappa leading yet another new trio, and also trumpeter Jason Palmer leading a quartet with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Williams.
Let’s hope that all of last night’s first set makes it onto the live album! Drummers aren’t often known as tunesmiths, but from the very first judicious riffs of Blake’s toms, he had an anthem going: his drums are tuned to play very discernible, catchy melodies. From that jaunty intro he wove a cumulo-nimbus vortex of intricately articulated polyrhythms, calm and immutable in the center of a storm, often anchoring the music with a steady clave. Blake likes to ride the rims for extra color to balance out that looming undercurrent, another consistent source of entertainment throughout the band’s roughly hour and a half onstage.
There were a couple of moments early on where he’d jab on an insistent, crushing beat and Oh would jab right back. Otherwise, she played melodies, as she always does. She opened the night’s third number – a playful tune by one of Blake’s Philly mentors, based on a simple four-note descending progression – with what grew into a tropical fanfare of sorts. That echoed what Blake had done with his intro to Mary Had a Little Lamb earlier. Later she found herself walking a scale – but tossed that idea aside after barely a couple of bars. Cliches simply don’t exist in her world.
Potter was his usual self, playing endless volleys of terse, purist minor-key blues phrasing without once lapsing into anything remotely rote – Charlie Parker did the same thing, but without Potter’s relentless focus. And Potter really waited for his moments to unleash that legendary extended technique: a devious detour into duotones when Blake and Oh backed off for a moment during a catchy, subtly shapeshifting clave-fueled Blake number, and a smoldering coda of valve-grinding harmonics to wind it up.
Oh’s tune turned out to be the night’s most complex adventure, moving beyond slinky, circular phrases punctuated by bright bass cadenzas over Blake’s pummeling rollercoaster grooves, to bright yet uneasy vistas far beyond any standard A-B-C sectioning. The night’s catchiest tune was the enigmatically modal Blake waltz that wound up the set. The bandleader explained that he took his inspiration for that one from something that Donny McCaslin’s son said to from the backseat of the family car, in response to a Phil Schaap piece on WBGO: “No bebop, daddy!” It was easy to see how this resonated with Blake – he and the kid have the same affinity for a hook.