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 Part 4: Ari Hoenig

Photo by Angelika Beener

There is nothing conventional about drummer Ari Hoenig.  Even as a sideman, he is not your typical drummer, with over sixty recordings to the much-in-demand Hoenig’s credit.  However, Hoenig’s amalgamation of technique, innovation, and creativity are what make him difficult to compare, and impossible to peg.

Since the Philly native’s emergence on the New York City jazz scene in the late 90s, Hoenig has played with the likes of Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Leibman, Joshua Redman, Shirley Scott, Richard Bona and more.  Hoenig also found a long-standing home in the trio’s of two of today’s most exceptional pianists: Jean Michel Pilc and Kenny Werner; the former urging Hoenig early on to make steps toward the forefront.  “He never really gave me any musical advice [per se], but he did build my confidence a lot.”  Jean said, “For one, you should definitely start your own band. I’d love to be a part of it, and even if not, you know, this is something that should definitely happen.”

Pilc surely knew about what he was talking and would later occupy the piano spot on two of Hoenig’s albums.  Hoenig released his debut album, Time Travels, in 2000, and never looked back.  With eight albums as a leader, Hoenig has been a trailblazer for the new wave of drummer front men, and the ultimate prototype of the modern drummer’s wingspan.

Hoenig is also a flourishing and prolific writer.  Like every drummer in my “investigative series”, I asked Hoenig about his writing process.  His latest album, Lines of Oppression (Naive Records), offers seven original tunes, including the title piece which is a mixture of complex melody, lush harmony, and rhythmic intensity.  The album features previous collaborators and pathfinders in their own right; pianist Tigran Hamasyan, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and bassists Orlando Le Fleming and Chris Tordini.  “I’ve never studied composition formally.  I mean, I’ve always kind of composed stuff just on my own but I’ve never actually had a class in it.  But I’ve noticed that there are a few different ways that people compose.  At least the way that I describe it.  From the melody is one, which is not a way that I do; almost never.  Maybe one song I started from the melody.  I start out with the chords usually…the harmony.  Probably eighty percent of the time, my songs are written with the chords first, the harmony first.  I sit at the piano.  I do play piano a lot.  And I write on piano all the time.  The drum part, as you will, actually never ever gets written.  That’s the very last thing, if it even is.  So, I don’t think about what I’m doing when I play on drums at all in terms of writing.  So, when I sit down and everyone has gotten their thing together, then I just play whatever seems right.  I write a few tunes with the bass line first, as well.  If you listen to any of Dave Holland’s music or…a lot of bass players actually write like that.  Like, a bass line, and then the tune kind of comes around it.”

Before I sat down to chat with Hoenig, I read somewhere that he hated the actual process of song writing.  With Hoenig being the author of one of my favorite ballads, “For Tracy”, I half-dispelled the question when I posed it to him, and was surprised when he confirmed on the matter.

“Oh yeah, that’s totally true,” Hoenig admits.  “The only part that I like about it is finishing.  I like to mess around with coming up with ideas, but as soon as this thing clicks in my head that ‘Oh, I should write a piece, and this should become a tune…’  From that moment until the moment I finish the song, I can’t stand it.  I don’t like the process.  Why don’t I like it?  Because it makes me feel…it’s like a puzzle.  It’s a challenge but it’s more than that.  It’s a personal challenge.  It gets in deeper than you’re trying to just do a puzzle that you know you’re going to eventually do, because you know there’s a solution.  But writing music, you don’t really know that there’s a solution.  Nobody’s worked it out before you.  If you’re writing a piece, you know…so what if it never works out?  I don’t know…I mean, it’s so personalized and it’s a certain amount of angst for me.  I have to force myself to do it. If I want to write a piece, I have to really force myself.  I’ve actually spent very, very little time writing music, and I haven’t written any songs that I haven’t used, except for one that I wrote in high school that is just stupid that I will never use.  It actually only took me five minutes to write.”

Hoenig’s off-center humor and humility augment the intrigue of his musical mystique.  Beyond being a conspicuously skillful drummer with seemingly boundless creativity, he can literally transform the use of the drum in ways rarely seen.  Hoenig’s affinity for melody has been manifested in his mind-blowing ability to create fluid melody lines on the drums, making the “non-melodic” classification of the instrument a misnomer.

Hoenig’s first two albums (Time Travels and The Life of a Day) are completely solo recordings.  Hoenig plays a collection of originals and standards, using the drums to produce aspects of the composition that are seemingly impossible to create.  This is most recently illustrated on his latest album, where the band performs their version of Bobby Timmons’ Moanin.  Hoenig brilliantly takes on the soulful melody of the call-and-response type bluesy classic.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“I started playing melodies on the drums pretty early on,” explains Hoenig.  “I guess [I was] around 18, and I heard Max Roach, for one, do it.  Jeff Hamilton did stuff similar, and another drummer named Earl Harvin who I was really influenced by.  Not so much [for] getting the notes out of the drums, but being able to play a tune on the drums with the basic contour and the ups and downs, and even more importantly, the phrasing.  Just being able to get the phrasing on the drums.  So if you listen to Mack the Knife and you hear Ella [Fitzgerald] sing it, you want to kind of be able to emulate her phrasing.  And just getting the phrasing without even worrying about the pitches of the drums, it’s going to be noticeable, like people are going to recognize that.  So I started doing that, and then I realized that I can actually get some of the notes too, out of the drums, so then I just started developing this system of how I can actually play whole pieces with the melodies on the drums with the actual pitches.  So I realized I can get either a 9th or a 10th from the floor tom to the snare drum and I can get all the notes in between so I can play any tune as long as they’re not really wide ranges.  Sometimes a really high note would have to be played an octave lower [for example].”  Hoenig also confirms that he has relative pitch; an aptitude he inherited, likely from his parents, both classical musicians.

While Hoenig is consistently reluctant to accept much praise in terms of his ability to reconstruct the drums, he is passionate about how invested drummers need to be inside of the music, beyond keeping the time.

“I think drummers sometimes — not the really good ones — but other ones, tend to be able to play the drums, but not really know the songs that they’re playing that well.  So you can be an amazing technician and drummer and have a lot of coordination, and, you know, [be] a ‘drummer’s drummer’, but if you don’t know the music that you’re playing, it just automatically means that you’re not as good.  It just will not make you as good as a musician, and that’s noticeable to everybody.  I mean, melody is something that I hear really strongly on all of the songs that I play, and if I’m playing a session and a gig that I don’t know, I’ll make a point to learn the song, and really know the song.  A lot of songs have the same form, for example, like a lot of blues have the same form but they have different melodies, so if you’re going to compose a solo, for example, on that form, I want it to be different than any other song, not any other form.  I’m not thinking the form like ABA or like blues twelve.  I’m thinking of the song.  And I think the really good drummers do that.  You know…drummers know that, but that’s something that I stress a lot especially with my students.”

Hoenig’s career is as multi-faceted as his playing, with several interesting projects on the horizon.  For one, he has reunited with Jean-Michel Pilc and bassist Francois Moutin to record Threedom (Motema) which is due for release next month, marking the resurgence of one of the most nonconforming and essential trios in today’s jazz music scene.  Hoenig is also currently touring with saxophonist Chris Potter in a series of duo concerts across Europe, where they will perform a set list that is heavily dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk.  Hoenig, who has recorded a fair share of Monk tunes on his albums as a leader, described his unsurprising fondness of the eccentric icon.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“It’s just that his tunes…they’re very rhythmic.  They’re melodies that some would call slightly awkward, which I wouldn’t even say that.  It’s just they have an interesting thing to them which is different than the ones people used over and over and over again.  Or any standards that are written with just chords and melody but no real rhythms in the tunes, so Monk – all the songs have that.  They’re built into the melody.  So it’s not just about playing the melody and the changes, but during the solos it gives the tune somewhere to go.  It’s almost saying like OK, there’s a destination…places to land.  So yeah, Monk’s tunes are especially appealing to me.  [With Chris Potter], we play probably close to half Monk tunes.  It’s fun.  And I actually used to do a duo with another drummer named Andrew Griffith in Dallas, and we did some Monk tunes as well, and for a drum duo I feel like it works really well, and actually with anybody.  Duo with anyone…those tunes definitely speak to me.  They give me a lot of ideas.”

Hoenig’s incessant need to push beyond so-called limits, and reinvent not only himself, but the vehicles used in his expression, also make him an optimal educator.  Hoenig has authored Systems Book 1: Drumming Technique and Melodic Jazz Independence (Alfred Publishing 2011) and writes for Modern Drummer Magazine.  He has also released The Ari Hoenig Songbook, which includes the complete lead sheets of Hoenig’s compositions.

Angst transformed into beauty, indeed. ♦

Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig perform at the Blue Note in NYC on August 30 & 31.  Click here for details.