There’s usually some kind of thesis to each of Michael Blake’s albums, whether they’re about integrating Vietnamese music with jazz (Kingdom of Champa), paying tribute to his saxophone heroes Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young (Tiddy Boom), or mixing European and North American approaches to improvisation (Blake Tartare).
So it’s not strange that the essence of the Montreal-born, Vancouver-raised saxophonist’s new Red Hook Soul can be reduced to a single sentence—although the sentence in question isn’t one that’s often applied to jazz albums.
“It’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it” is Blake’s motto on the new disc, and he meets his goal handily.
As its title suggests, Red Hook Soul is a tribute to African-American pop music of the 1960s, a point driven home by the record’s Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, and Ray Charles covers. (Also reworked are Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” and jazz innovator Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery”, just to mix things up a bit.)
But it’s also a homage to Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood, where Blake picks up pocket change playing soul whenever he’s not on the road with his own projects, and where he met most of the other players on the new disc.
“The band got together in Red Hook at this speakeasy—actually, a pretty legitimate bar called Sunny’s,” he recalls. “The drummer and the bass player had been playing in a bar band together for at least a decade, and I’d been subbing in that band for years.
“It was something I’d be happy to go out and do at any hour of the night, because those guys were playing instrumental soul music at a very high level all the time. It kept me doing that kind of playing, which I’d already dabbled in with the Lounge Lizards and Slow Poke and other different projects.”
To the core rhythm section of bassist Tim Lüntzel, drummer Tony Mason, and pianist Erik Deutsch, Blake added percussionist Moses Patrou, in a nod to the Latin-soul sounds of the ’60s, along with guitarists Avi Bortnick, from jazz legend John Scofield’s band, and Tony Scherr, better known for his work as a bassist with Bill Frisell and Norah Jones.
The new unit quickly picked up some high-profile fans—and free time in one of New York’s busiest studios.
“The band played great live. We just had a ball,” Blake says. “And then Andy Taub, who runs Brooklyn Recording Studio, came to hear us and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you record this?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have the budget, and I don’t know what record company to deal with…’ and he just went, ‘Who cares? Just come in and record.’ And the band felt the same way, so everybody just set aside two days, and we got it done.”
Blake originally intended to spend another couple of days adding extra horns or perhaps even a singer, but was soon convinced to leave well enough alone.
“Tony [Scherr] mentioned that this music is really about ensemble playing, with everyone sounding good together playing in a room,” he says. “So I decided to just mix the tracks as we did them and live with it, warts and all.”
This, Blake adds, is in keeping with Duke Ellington’s conception of jazz as “social music”: functional art that is both sonically seductive and creatively challenging. “I wanted it to be about grooves and dance pieces, and eventually play in places where people would be dancing to what we’re doing,” he says. “And we’re getting there, slowly but surely.”
Michael Blake’s Holiday Soul Party, with organist Chris Gestrin, drummer Joe Poole, and percussionist Jack Duncan, is at Frankie’s Jazz Club next Thursday (December 29).