Drummer Johnathan Blake plays with urgency and grace, a controlled and purposeful abandon that endears him to hardcore jazz fans and novices alike as well as a diverse roster of fellow musicians. He’s played and recorded with Tom Harrell, Oliver Lake, Kenny Barron, Ravi Coltrane, and the Mingus Big Band, among others. Blake didn’t release his first album, The Eleventh Hour (Sunnyside Records), until his mid-thirties, and by this time he had fused his experience as a sideman and his broad tastes into a unique, coherent vision as a composer and bandleader. NPR called him the “ultimate modernist,” perhaps for his ability to combine jazz improvisation with anthemic compositions and the kind of textures—harmonicas, Fender Rhodes, studio distortion—one would expect from an R&B album.
His second album, Gone, But Not Forgotten (Criss Cross), was released earlier this year. With a quartet featuring bassist Ben Street and tenor heavyweights Chris Potter and Mark Turner, it seemed like an attempt for Blake to get back to basics. This may seem a bit odd for a performer who had previously released only one album, but Gone showcases Blake’s formidable straight-ahead chops. Only two of Blake’s compositions are on the album, but the credits attest to his knowledge of jazz history and deep respect for its practitioners: compositions by Blake’s fellow Philadelphians Charles Fambrough, Trudy Pitts, and Sid Simmons are joined by the work of Jim Hall, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Eddie Harris, Paul Motian, Frank Foster, and Frank Wess. The group performed on our stage in last September and, as Ethan Iverson wrote, speaking for us all, “Who doesn’t want to hear Mark Turner and Chris Potter try to cut each other in a bare bones situation?”
Blake brings a new quintet, called BLESS, to The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, November 14th and 15th, 2014. Keeping the two-tenor frontline of Gone, Blake will be joined by saxophonists Dayna Stephens and John Ellis as well as Lage Lund on guitar and Ben Street on bass. The performances are sure to be electric; Blake isn’t capable of anything less.
Johnathan Blake’s BLESS performs this Friday and Saturday, November 14th and 15th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The performances will feature Blake on drums, John Ellis and Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Lage Lund on guitar, and Ben Street on bass. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.