Drum Composers Series Finale: Johnathan Blake

For decades, Philadelphia has boasted one of the most burgeoning jazz scenes in the world.  A thriving commorancy to legends like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, the Heath brothers, and Philly Joe Jones, to name a few, the City of Brotherly Love has been the backdrop to one of the most essential eras in jazz.  Philly remains a cornucopia of jazz heritage, producing the likes of Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Derrick Hodge, Rodney Green, Orrin Evans, Ari Hoenig, and Jaleel Shaw.  Drummer Johnathan Blake is at home among this esteemed group, becoming one of finest talents on his instrument, and now making his mark as a leader.

Blake will release The Eleventh Hour (licensed by Sunnyside Records) at the top of 2012.  An extraordinary debut, Blake exhibits both his breadth of chops and his uncanny compositional skills.  The all-star ensemble includes saxophonists Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw, pianists Robert Glasper and Kevin Hays, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Ben Street, and Gregoire Maret on harmonica.  The Eleventh Hour is a fine album that is splendidly unfeigned and musically abundant.  This dynamic cast of players, who are all leaders in their own rights, synergize to produces one of the best straight-ahead jazz albums I’ve heard in a very, very long time.  Blake credits the long-standing brotherhood of his band members.  “What’s great is that most of the guys that are in the band are on the record, so we had been playing together for years,” he explains.  “Rob and I have been playing together since maybe the late 90s, so he’s played mostly all that music.  Ben Street, Jaleel, Mark Turner…my homeboys.  The only newcomer was Kevin Hays.  We had played together a couple times, so for him most of the music was new and it was nice to have him be a part of this project because he brought a different sound to some of the older music, so it kind of helped us gain a different approach to our playing, so that was good.”

The Eleventh Hour is not only a well-cast, brilliantly executed album, but the repertoire is striking and distinctive. Blake penned most of the albums tunes, with the exception of a few.  The band covers Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune” from the tear-jerker movie classic Awakenings.  Written for Dexter Gordon, who appeared in the movie and passed away before its release, Blake’s band captures the feel and memory of the saxophone great, with Mark Turner’s gorgeous take on the thoughtful melody.  Blake also recorded Glasper’s “Canvas”, a moody, mantra-like beauty in 5/4 that features a vibrant exchange between Maret and Glasper, with Blake’s tasteful grooves elevating the experience and Mark Turner blazing the vamp.  The album also features a blithely swinging number entitled “Blues News”, written by Blake’s long-time employer, Tom Harrell.

Blake’s compositions are equally outstanding, full of  versatile virtuosity.  Blake began writing music very early, egged on by his youth ensemble director.  “The instructor of the program pretty much required us to all write music, and we all had to bring in a tune.  When we first started out, [we were] playing standards repertoire and some Horace Silver, some John Coltrane, but then I would say when I was around twelve or thirteen, he said, ‘I want you guys to come in with a tune,’ and so that’s how I first got into it.”

Born into a musical family, Blake began his musical journey modeling after his father, John Blake Jr., a renowned jazz violinist.  Young Johnathan began playing the violin as well at age three, before moving on to piano, and then landing most assuredly on the drums.  The ASCAP Young Composers winner would benefit from his formidable years as a multi-instrumentalist.  “For me, I think starting out with violin and piano kind of helped me be more aware of melodies.  I was talking to a couple different drummers who were also like that.  Like, Brian Blade is one that comes to mind.  Oddly enough, he started on the violin also and he said that kind of helped when he’s hearing melodies.  He also takes the guitar on the road when he travels, so I think there’s something to that…when you have that luxury of being able to play a melodic instrument.  I mean, the great thing about playing piano is that you have the percussive side but also the melodic sides, so it’s like a full orchestra.  It’s pretty amazing.”

Blake acquired the tools early on, but a push from his Dad undoubtedly developed his confidence as a composer.  Blake recalls, “I remember like the first one or two compositions, my dad would help me with the notation.  Then he was like, ‘You got it…you have to figure it out.’  And that was great.”  Blake also credits the willingness of his employers to wholly share the stage, and welcome new music.  “I think the other thing that happens too is that a lot of leaders, like in Kendrick [Scott’s] case playing with Terence Blanchard, Terence is open enough where he allows the other members  of his band to start composing, so that’s another way that allows side men to start getting their composer chops up and eventually getting them on records.  I think that’s kind of helpful too, and gives that extra little push to hopefully continue this [trend].  I’ve had the luxury of working with Kenny [Barron].  I’ve had the opportunity to bring in some tunes, so it’s really great to have a leader who’s open like that, where you don’t have to necessarily play all his or her tunes.”

Blake’s compositional aptitude and superior drum skills made for a natural progression to record as a leader.  “I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] our role is a more supportive role, like you know, backing the band, and pushing the band or whatever,” says Blake of the recent emergence of drummers who have become front men.  “So you’re never thought of as leading a band or writing your own music.  With this music, we always have to try to reinvent ourselves so to speak, and really try to push the envelope, and always try to grow.  So I think out of that came this idea of having drummers thought of as not just sidemen or as background support, but more as like, ‘Let’s see what this guy’s doing.’”

With the decision to record out of the way, the challenges of independently financing a record in the current industry climate loomed.  Blake welcomed the task, setting up a successful campaign to help raise the funds.  Blake used IndieGoGo to get his audience’s attention and implore his fans’ support.  This new way of using funding platforms like IndieGoGo and KickStarter have proved successful for other jazz musicians like drummer Otis Brown III, and guitarist Mike Moreno.  “I think the empowering thing is really just connecting with some of the fans,” says Blake about his campaign.  “We travel all around and you don’t even think about certain people that you meet and exchange emails with and become Facebook friends with, and you go on KickStarter, and it’s like man, this person from Spain who I met ten years ago just gave me money.  So, for me, I really like that kind of exchange and connection with some of the people that I’ve met along the road, on the journey, so that’s great.”  Like that early push from his father, Blake would now have to push himself on the business side.  “Some of the challenges were…I’m not the best salesman so it’s really hard to get in that mode.  You have to push yourself and get the word out, so it’s a challenge.  I’ve really been trying too, because I’m kind of on the shyer side, so it’s hard to be asking some people [for money].  I really appreciate everybody that’s donated so far, and even the ones that can’t, they’ve really just been sending encouraging words, which is really helpful for me, because it helps me to know that I’m on the right thing.  And slowly I’m saying that OK, this has allowed me to get out of that shell and really not be afraid to sell myself so to speak, because you have to be your own manager, your own sales person and stuff like that.  So it’s like, I have to learn how to do it some time, and now with this record coming out, this is the better time than ever.  So I’m really digging it, and really reconnecting with a lot of friends that I haven’t seen since junior high or high school, who have sent money.”

As the music industry shrinks and record labels continue to fold, it has become increasingly difficult for jazz musicians to present their music, no matter how impressive their talents and credentials may be.  However, the upside to the current circumstance is a leveling of the playing field for artists who aren’t in the small pond of jazz musicians signed to major labels.  “I think there was like a period where after a lot of these record companies went under and a lot of artists – especially jazz artists — were like ‘What are we going to do, how are we going to get our music out there?,’” says Blake.  “It’s not like the “Young Lion” movement where all these cats were getting signed to Verve, and stuff.  So we caught the tail end of that but it’s like, what’s my direction now?  For me, it’s kind of like a full circle moment.  There was a movement where like people were selling their own CDs out of the trunk of their car or whatever, and marketing themselves, and I think it’s getting back to that.  I really think this is a good time for us, and I also think that because of that, it also then showcases music that we want to play, which is allowing us to be writers.  Allowing drummers to come out and write because we have this outlet.  We don’t have to necessarily play the music of Billy Strayhorn; we can play the music of E.J. Strickland, or the music of Antonio Sanchez.  Now we kind of have a say.  It’s been a long time coming.”♦

Check the Chops!

Drum Composers Series Pt. 2: Adam Cruz

Photo by: Shelagh Murphy

Drummer Adam Cruz released the aptly titled Milestone (Sunnyside) this past spring.  A striking debut, Cruz re-introduces himself as not just a deftly talented drummer, but an impressive composer.  Milestone is comprised of eight original compositions and a fantastic ensemble to interpret them, with saxophonists Miguel Zenón, Steve Wilson and Chris Potter, pianist Ed Simon, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and bassist Ben Street.  An album with a superb amount of depth and freshness, Milestone has (conceptually-speaking) been years in the making.  But in life and in music, timing is everything, and perhaps for Cruz, it is most distinctly illustrated in his outing as a bandleader.  For what seems like a long overdue venture is actually right on schedule; a project culminating life experience, introspection, awakening, and a gentle push from those closest to him.

With a career spanning over twenty years now, and over forty album credits as a sideman, the New York native has already earned his rightful place among the company of jazz music’s most exceptional modern drummers.  Regarding his decision to compose, he references one of his earlier pivotal moments, which followed his relatively short run in pianist Chick Corea’s band. “[It had] less to do with piano per se, and even less maybe, to do with music,” explains Cruz.   “But just more of a psychological point I was at, I think.  So after I did that run with Chick, which was just a little over a year, there was a bit more of a space in my life professionally. It was before I started with Danilo and  I wasn’t steady with anyone at that moment, so I felt compelled to look deeper at that time, like hmmm, what am I doing here with music, with my drumming, my writing?  And just kind of realizing that composition was a major way I’d like to express myself.  In the late 90s, I felt I had to invest myself more in that direction; kind of a self-awareness that came up.  Because maybe up until that time, it was just more like simply ‘playing gigs.’  And so when that gig [with Chick] finished I felt that kind of a vista, a space…like now what?  So I looked a little more inside and realized this was something I wanted to develop more, with composition.  And so little by little I started to put my feet in that direction.”

A gutsy, haunting and pensive album, Milestone exhibits a musical cohesiveness so evident, and no doubt rooted in the longstanding relationships between Cruz and his band mates.  That closeness also gave Cruz a trusted push to go for what was now calling him.  “The earlier pieces I had written, I didn’t feel that there was a particular sound of identity that made them…I would say it was just a little more run of the mill by my own standards and didn’t have…identity is the word.  I didn’t feel something coming through like I did with these pieces.  Up until the last minute, I wasn’t sure how well they were gonna work, but when we had the first rehearsal, a year before recording, I was really pleased.  I said okay, there is something here.  And then the encouragement of the band.  Everyone was really supportive of the music and revealed that to me so there was an instinct that said now’s the time.  And I wanted it to be with people I feel a certain relationship with and have a certain friendship with.  So Steve Wilson for instance, and also Miguel and Ed Simon in part, are all people whose bands I’ve played in.  I think when you have a relationship with somebody rather than bringing somebody in who’s maybe a great player but you haven’t played with much and is gonna do a great job on a record date…for me, I was trying to get somewhat of a band feeling and when you have the relationship, there’s a certain depth you perceive in bands like that.  So I was trying to honor a band aesthetic from the start.  That, and my own intuition of what would work well.”

Cruz and bassist Ben Street have had the longest union.  Together they are two-thirds of Danilo Perez’ trio, recently hitting the decade mark as a band.  His time with Danilo was, among many things, a major source of support for Cruz’ decision to write.  “Sometimes as a drummer, one can have a complex about harmony, and when you’re putting the notes together,” reveals Cruz.  “I remember reading something that [Jeff] “Tain” [Watts] had said.  Something that I really related to.  He was talking to Kenny Kirkland about writing, and he was wondering if like, is this okay, making certain harmonic moves?  Kenny just said trust your ears, trust your instinct.  That kind of happened with me and Danilo.  Danilo encouraged me not to think so much about nomenclature or harmony in a certain kind of fixed way but to assemble the notes and look for sounds before you know what you’re naming them and trust what you’re hearing, and that opened a lot for me because as a drummer you have to learn how to trust that.  Because we’re coming from a non-melodic instrument so for me, it took some time.  I think that’s part of why it took so long also.  Just trusting my own instinct and ears to what I’m doing as a composer.”

If Milestone were cinematic, it would begin with the victorious ending.  The triumph is in the air from the outset of the first song.  The songs are deeply colorful and communicative.  I haven’t heard many albums where I feel like I can almost hear the words of what these melodies may be saying.  And although the album is dark in mood (one of my favorite vibes) there are these peaks of elation, and hope and epiphany; particularly, on the album’s opening track, “Secret Life.”

One striking detail is that Cruz doesn’t seem to be proving any of the wrong points on this album.  When you listen, you know that this is a drummer’s album, but for all of the right reasons.  The drum execution is delectable, and seems to float within all of the layers of the music, rather than pounding on top of it.

“I realize that the reason that it came out with that kind of a balance is maybe because I feel like I had so much energy, and more of my private life, focused on composing and playing the piano while in my professional life, there was no evidence of that,” offers Cruz.  “I was playing drums on gigs of course, and there’s a way one can say that because of studying piano or composing that it’s coming through my drumming.  But you know I was just spending so much time writing and studying piano that I think when it came time to put the pieces together, and I felt like this is a new part of me or a new part of my artistic process that I really wanted to be focused on that dimension.  And perhaps I’d let the drums not be this center stage or that focus because I had been spending so many months — years really — with putting the notes together.  So I kind of pieced it together that way.”

Cruz’ “tailor-made” compositions further exemplify the closeness of the band.  There is thoughtfulness in all of the pieces, driven by a personal connection to the other musicians, creating one of the most synergistic albums that I’ve heard in a very long time.  “I would write first on the piano and then a little bit on Logic, and as I was hearing the parts, I was just enjoying myself imagining the players,” Cruz reflects.  There’s something about Miguel Zenón’s sound when I would listen back to my own midi recording of “Secret Life,” I thought about him on that melody, and it really made sense.  It might just be a moment when someone might jump out as an image and that would be enough for me to say ok let’s try him on the whole thing.  I also felt just having dynamic soloists like Chris Potter and Miguel Zenón …all of them really because I have these long sections that were wide open and I wanted musicians who could bring a certain sense of power but at the same time they’re all very sensitive, and tuned into what’s going on around them. They’re not gonna go off on their own so to speak but yield to what is happening in the band.”

It may be a more recent phenomenon that jazz drummers are composing, but pondering the subject, Cruz reflected on some of the drummers who have done it before, and who he is influenced by, giving me an insightful history lesson in the meantime.  “One of my favorite all time heroes is Roy Haynes, though not known for composing.  For me, ever few bars is a composition with Roy Haynes, the way he plays!  I just saw Billy Hart at the [Village] Vanguard last week, and he’s always written, and he’s one of my favorites.  I think he just did a new record too.  Victor Lewis; he’s a great composer.  He was a teacher of mine.  I took a couple lessons, I used to go see Victor play a lot when I was coming up and he has wonderful tunes, so yeah there are some exceptions.  Al Foster, who writes…Jack DeJohnette, who played piano first.  Paul Motian is a very inspiring composer as well. So yeah those are some models. There’s a tune “Sister Cheryl,” by Tony Williams which is a good tune.  He actually studied more formally in later years. I think he was trying to get a Masters [degree] in composition and was getting really into classical composition.  Before he passed I know he was studying more seriously.  That’s why it was such a tragic loss, because it looked like he was looking to expand even further.

Cruz’ cross-pollenating of music styles and aesthetics in his drumming is often an intriguing topic for many of jazz music’s analysts.  On Milestone, there are such broad strokes of diverse expression.  Songs like “Emjé” and “The Gadfly” having an undeniable and infectious Latin drive, while on songs like “Outer Reaches” Cruz is steeped in the sound of the African American tradition, playing a brilliant fury of imaginative lines, where you can hear the influence of drummers like

Photo by: Fernando Aceves

Roy Haynes.  Often regarded as a Latin drummer who plays jazz versus a “Latin jazz drummer,” I wondered about the connotation of that kind of seemingly congratulatory analysis.  “If you’re somebody who’s Latino or somebody who’s mixed or of any ethnicity really, like, you can sense those implications,” says Cruz.  “I’d like to think that if people make that distinction, it’s not necessarily about the dilution of the Latin aesthetic being a good thing, but more of an acknowledgment of a certain kind of creative process going on, a certain kind of flexibility that gets associated with jazz and is not perhaps as commonly associated with what is typically considered Latin jazz.  I think we’re living in a time when there’s a breakdown of old perceptions, and so we sometimes witness the old ways of seeing things, the old boxes that are in place.  So because you know, there might have been a time when things were a little more clear-cut.  Oh, you got a Latin date, you get this guy, you got a jazz date you get that guy, and there was some truth to that.  But in the times we live in now, the boundaries are so much more fluid and you have musicians from Latin America like David Sanchez for instance, who I play with.  Or Danilo for that matter, who are incredible jazz musicians in every way, and breaking barriers.  Miguel Zenón, for instance, or Antonio Sanchez, you know? And you have drummers like Marcus Gilmore playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba dealing with clave and all, and David Virelles from Cuba who seriously knows his Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.  I think that the perception perhaps of some people who write about music is not totally caught up with the reality of how fluid things are.  I’m Latino, I’m Jewish, Italian, black and white, and I grew up here around New York.  I feel just as much of a relationship to bebop and Art Blakey and Roy Haynes as to Tito Puente and Willie Bobo.  Beyond that, I think we need to realize that just in the music itself there is often more in common than there is in difference.  If I hear Roy Haynes playing a drum solo it often sounds to me like a great timbale solo.  At its source, the music at the roots, I feel like since the discovery of the New World, the codes that came with the slaves, and the music that came all over the New World is the major phenomenon.  There’s all these different branches how in Brazil the music took shape, and how in the Caribbean, The States, New Orleans.  But I think we’re getting to a point where if we look, we can see an underlying, unifying principal.  And I think musician’s today are starting to not identify as much the locality as with that principal that underlies it.”

Adam Cruz and his Milestone group play tomorrow, August 10th at the Harbor Conservatory at 1 East 104th Street.  7:30pm.  Concert is FREE.  For more details, click here .