Saxophonist Dan Blake‘s new album Da Fé – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t just a brilliant, darkly picturesque, tuneful record: it’s an important one. Blake has gone to great lengths to capture much of the perilous state of the world, 2021. And as grim as so many of the themes here are, with plenty of gallows humor, ultimately this is optimistic. We’re going to get through this, even if it takes us a lot of work, Blake seems to say. He’s got a fantastic band: Carmen Staaf on piano, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, and Jeff Williams on drums with Leo Genovese adding both piano and multi-keys. The ensemble seem much larger than they are in places since Blake overdubs himself frequently for extra intensity.
Staaf builds an increasingly bewildering, creepy belltone ambience in her solo introduction, A New Normal: clearly Blake is wise to the inhumanity of the lockdowners’ totalitarian schemes.
Cry of the East, dedicated to the Palestinian people, begins as an edgily modal Coltrane-inspired jazz waltz, Blake multitracking a sax chorus overhead, Staaf following with a sagacious blues-infused solo setting up the bandleader’s angst-fueled, trilling crescendo. Blake sticks with the soprano sax in Like Fish in Puddles, at first flurrying if not actually flappping around, over a hypnotically energetic backdrop. Staaf signals the first cautious moves out of the trap, Blake an insistent voice of reason overhead; the squall and surreal synth flickers as tension mounts aptly captures the past year’s relentless anxiety.
The next number is simply titled Pain, Genovese building an increasingly macabre, echoey pool beneath Blake’s circles and cries. The band rise to a dissociative, grimly bluesy sway from there, part somber Coltrane, part menacing Messiaen. The Grifter is a brilliantly constructed portrait of a guy who seems like a real blithe spirit, but as Staaf and the rest of the band quickly make clear, that orange wig can’t conceal what’s lurking underneath. Blake’s solo at the end is too good to give away.
The Cliff comes across as a sardonic mashup of Monk and modal Miles: well, you needn’t go over the edge, Blake seems to say with his multitracks over the rhythm section’s terse syncopation and bracing scrambles. Dr. Armchair is the album’s most cynical track: this guy keeps flogging the same dead horse even as his logic doesn’t stand up, Staaf taking charge of the demolition with relish. This person could just as easily be someone you know, or someone on tv.
The album’s title track is not a bossa or a samba but instead begins as a surreal, sci-fi tableau of sax and synthy squiggles, answered by the band’s ruggedly Monkish melodicism, up to a long, sharp-fanged Blake alto solo. The album’s epilogue is It Heals Itself, a disquieted tone poem of sorts. Blake’s soprano sax still channels a persistent pain, but his layers of melody seems to offer a very guarded hope as the group sway patiently behind him. One of the most relevant and musically rich albums of 2021 in any style of music.