Michael Blake - Saxophones
Steven Bernstein - Trumpet
Clark Gayton - Trombone
Bob Stewart - Tuba
Marcus Rojas - Tuba
Allan Mednard - Drums
A couple of years ago, Michael Blake sent me some video of him playing a house concert with a brass band. I’d been a fan of Blake’s music since I first arrived in NYC 20 years prior. At that time we had a full slot of releases lined up, but that video stayed in my mind. There was something infectious and joyful about it. We reconnected again during the recording of the KIMBROUGH tribute record. When I was putting together this series of records, I kept going back to that video. It wasn’t just the joy of the music, something about the atmosphere felt right too. A living room setting, a joyful explosion of noise, a bull in a china shop, something that felt just barely contained. A pre-pandemic, shoulder-to-shoulder gathering with none of the accouterments of “the concert hall” setting. Not even a piano. I must have watched the video 20 times before finally calling Michael to see if we could capture some of that joy on vinyl.
Michael was born in Montreal and spent time growing up in California and Vancouver. His mother was a ballet dancer who found work on stage and television. Michael’s dad was an opera buff and an advertising executive. In school, his brother started on the saxophone so Michael was relegated to the clarinet. He started off playing salsa music and blues, playing along with Benny Goodman records. He switched to sax in high school and started a number of bands. In the early 80’s he attended the BANFF artists retreat, which at that time was run by the great bassist Dave Holland. It was there that the pieces started falling into place for him. There, Michael also met saxophone giant Dave Liebman and soon thereafter Michael won a grant to come study with him in New York.
The city was a crucible. Music was everywhere at the time: James White, Defunkt John Zorn, Charles Gayle, Thomas Chapin, Marty Ehrlich. It was around this time that Dave met members of this band; Steve Bernstein, Marcus Rojas and Clark Gayton were around then. Michael was transcribing all the time and playing every night, picking up merengue and salsa gigs, R&B, whatever came his way. His big break finally came when John Lurie heard Michael playing a show at a dive bar. John eventually recruited Michael into the Lounge Lizards. At that time the Lounge Lizards were probably the most popular band in the city, coming at everything sideways, but without the ironic remove of their earlier years. Playing with Lurie opened up some horizons in Michael’s music. Back in Vancouver Michael found he didn’t quite fit in with the jazz scene he had earlier aspired to. He was starting to find his voice becoming known, not just for his writing and playing but for his omnivorous taste and his steadfast refusal to pick a musical lane.
That’s how I like to think of Michael Blake’s music. Always exploring the edge of so many different pockets of the New York jazz world. A “first call” musician who prefers to call his own shots. Country, soul, “free,” swing, trad jazz, rock, musical traditions from Vietnam and Inda, southern blues …all of it rolling around in Michael’s bag but always with an ear tilted towards the joy of it. Despite whatever complexity he digs into, there’s always a dance to his music – never an intellectual remove. Michael writes and plays music that wants to be heard. I think that’s what kept drawing me back to this ensemble. When Michael said he wanted to bring in TWO tubas for the project – titans Bob Stewart and Marcus Rojas – I could only smile. I’m ready for this profusion of music, this eruption – this celebration. New York is still a crucible. Decades of carving out a musician’s life takes its toll and this music demands so much dedication and perseverance. However, the rewards run deep, and occasionally, on a Sunday afternoon in a random living room, an explosion of life.
– Elan Mehler