Given that he has a band in Brooklyn, one in Copenhagen, and a third right here in his old hometown, saxophonist Michael Blake seems a good choice to comment on the state of jazz in Vancouver. But when the Georgia Straight reaches him at home in New York, he can’t think beyond the loss our local scene has suffered with the recent death, from cancer, of pianist and saxophonist Ross Taggart.
“He and I spent a lot of time together when he came here; we were best friends,” Blake explains. “So I have to say I’ve been pretty knocked out of balance by his decline and passing. It really caught me by surprise. So I’m really, really sad and sorry to see him go, and right now, if you ask me about Vancouver, that’s all I can think about.”
It’s a downbeat way to start an interview, but Blake soon perks up enough to reveal that he’s putting his personal sorrow to good use, having just finished writing a piece of music in Taggart’s memory.
“It’s not really a portrait of him, though,” he stresses. “I don’t even know if he would like the song very much, ’cause it’s a little poppy and contemporary, and Ross, his heart was really in the tradition.…It’s probably more a portrait of my sadness than it is about him. Maybe that’s a little self-indulgent, but, you know, you’ve got to grieve, and that was my way of grieving.”
It’s also questionable whether Blake’s old friend would like his new band, which features Vancouver all-stars Chris Gestrin on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Minimoog synthesizer, JP Carter on trumpet and electronics, and Dylan van der Schyff on drums. But Taggart was certainly a fan of jazz legend Lester Young’s 1946 trio with pianist Nat “King” Cole and drummer Buddy Rich, which inspired Blake’s new Songlines release, In the Grand Scheme of Things.
“That really was intriguing to me, the idea of playing without bass,” Blake reports. “I had envisioned Chris on acoustic piano. And then when we went to play, I don’t know if there was no piano or Chris just said, ‘You know what? Let me try this setup with Moog and Rhodes.’ I love his Rhodes playing, so I was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s try that.’ And that basically decided it.”
Although the bass-less quartet is certainly capable of playing uptempo jazz—check out the new album’s “Cybermonk” for proof—what sets it apart is its fondness for open-ended structures and dreamlike transitions. With Gestrin’s Moog supplying otherworldly textures and van der Schyff in an unusually propulsive mood, Carter and Blake often focus on long, spiralling lines that consistently lead to unexpected places. And with a songbook that ranges from 21st-century bebop to ’60s soul hits to Blake’s hallucinatory originals, the players certainly live up to their Variety Hour band name.
“Things are really all over the map,” says the saxophonist. “I just like a lot of different music!”
Michael Blake’s Variety Hour plays Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club on Friday and Saturday (January 25 and 26).