Multi-talented saxophonist Ron Blake inhabits many worlds, and nowhere is this more apparent than on his third release for Mack Avenue, Shayari (shy-ree). Produced by pianist Michael Cain (who also appears on the CD), Shayari (the meaning, in Urdu, a type of ancient poetry consisting of couplets and a highly stylized form of verse considered extremely beautiful) combines fertile ground from each of Blake’s worlds to create an extraordinary landscape of its own. Showcased here in an intimate, unplugged, trio setting, the CD also features performances by special guests drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Christian McBride, violinist Regina Carter and percussionist Gilmar Gomes.
Blake, a strikingly tall, Virgin Islands-born native, is based in New York City. He is a well-rounded musician and has recorded three CDs as a leader; in addition, his discography numbers more than 50 recordings as either a guest or sideman with leading artists. They include Roy Hargrove; Art Farmer; the Christian McBride Band; Spirit Music Jamia; Red, Hot + Riot; and the Grammy® nominated, Latin pop group, Yerba Buena; also, Blake has recorded soundtracks (most recently on El Cantante starring Marc Anthony/Jennifer Lopez). The multi-talented musician is entering his third season as a member of NBC’s Saturday Night Live Band. About the new recording, Shayari, Blake says, “This record is more introspective than earlier projects. It’s an acoustic collection of trios. Compositionally, it lends itself to some of the ideas introduced on my most recent recording, Sonic Tonic. I worked with Michael Cain to put this recording together; everything stemmed from us trying to find people to collaborate with to create a distinct, aural setting not unlike Sonic Tonic.”
That aural setting primarily features the tenor saxophone, the piano, drums and percussion. Blake’s broad, tenor tones irradiate all of the 13 tracks buoyed by Michael Cain’s florid and fluid piano; Gilmar Gomes’s sympathetic nuances, and Jack DeJohnette’s all-world drumming. Some of Shayari’s songs are reprises of Blake’s older material. The opener “Waltz For Gwen,” is a pleasing ode to his mother, previously recorded with Blake playing soprano sax on his first outing as a leader, Up Front and Personal, distributed by his (then) own Tahmun Records label. The foreboding piano ostinato drives “Atonement,” a previously un-recorded Blake composition in two sections, laced with DeJohnette’s dramatic fills and solo. Says Blake, “The groove on this lends itself to something I would connect with [songs/grooves on] Sonic Tonic [on this CD]; structurally, it’s a more improvisational approach.”
“Of Kindred Souls” is another original Blake composition. It was first recorded by Roy Hargrove in 1993 on the CD of the same name, but has been re-cast here with Regina Carter’s classic violin strains. Blake states, “I was looking for a melody that would lend itself to a duet for violin and tenor. Regina came and did what she does so well, adding a beautiful color and presence to the song.” Bassist Christian McBride, with whom Blake has worked for eight years, and who produced Lest We Forget, is featured on Bobby Hutcherson’s composition, “Teddy,” and also on the soulful “What Is Your Prayer For?” composed by Blake.
As a musician who is at-home with the jazz tradition, Blake also included some standards on the date. “Please Be Kind,” from the Sammy Cahn songbook, is rendered in telepathic reverence as a sax/piano duet. Blake, Cain, and the Brazilian percussionist Gomes add their own interpretation to Ivan Lins’ immortal composition, “The Island.” “This was a song Michael suggested,” says Blake. “All we had to do was let it play itself.” About “Remember The Rain,” the other sax/piano duet featured on Shayari and another original composition, he adds, “This song is related to ‘What Is Your Prayer For?’ It’s a chance to interpret melody without harmonic improvisation unlike other songs on the recording.”
Pianist Michael Cain’s influence on Shayari is also evident on his two contributions, the Latin-tinged “76” and “Come Sun,” a composition that highlights Blake’s classical lyricism. Other selections include “Hanuman,” named for the Hindu deity [from the Sanskrit epic Ramayan (Way of the Rama) of ancient India]. The track, “Abhaari”—another word from the sub-continent meaning “gratitude”—is a two-movement composition that, along with “Hanuman,” was composed collectively by Blake, Cain, and DeJohnette.
The origins of Ron Blake’s tradition-honed eclecticism can be traced back to the Virgin Islands where he was born and reared. At age 8, Blake took guitar lessons; then, two years later, he switched to the alto saxophone in his elementary school band. He loved playing calypso and other music from the region. He graduated from Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy, and later matriculated into Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Artistic and Academic Achievement. In 1987, Blake’s jazz career began in St. Thomas, where he taught in summer music programs. He was introduced by, and performed with jazz luminaries Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson, and Gary Bartz at the first Virgin Islands Jazz Festival. Later, he won a National Endowment for the Arts Grant to study with Bartz. After his graduation from Northwestern University, Blake worked extensively in the Chicago-area with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, performing behind such legends as Louis Bellson, Clark Terry, Nancy Wilson. He was mentored by many of the Windy City’s jazz statesmen, including Von Freeman, Willie Pickens, and Bunky Green.
In 1990, Blake moved to Tampa, FL, and began work as an Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida, and nurtured his classical interests by performing with the Florida Symphony Orchestra. Occasionally, he would fly to New York to sit-in with Branford Marsalis; Mulgrew Miller; and Kenny Kirkland. In 1992, Blake re-located to New York City and joined Roy Hargrove’s Quintet, a collaboration that spanned five years. During this period, Blake also worked with dozens of jazz greats including: Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, Stanley Turrentine, Roy Haynes, Art Taylor, Benny Golson, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, and Ray Brown. In 1998, Blake recorded 21st Century, a unique Caribbean-influenced jazz project, with drummer and fellow-Virgin Islander Dion Parson.
In addition to his 2000 debut as a leader on Up Front and Personal with special guest Johnny Griffin, Ron Blake released his first Mack Avenue recording, Lest We Forget in 2003, followed by Sonic Tonic in 2005. In 2005, he was featured in Meshell Ndegéocello’s group, Spirit Music Jamia (with Michael Cain), which released a critically acclaimed recording, Dance of the Infidel. Since the year 2000, Blake has been a member of the Christian McBride Band and is featured on McBride’s Live at Tonic. Blake also has guest appearances on several Mack Avenue recordings, including: Gerald Wilson, Sean Jones, and Tia Fuller. In 2005, he was invited to join NBC’s Saturday Night Live Band, where he plays the baritone saxophone and flute. In 2007, Blake was appointed to teach in the Jazz Studies program at the Juilliard School of Music. Currently, he is member of the faculty at both New York University and Nyack College (Manhattan campus).