A 75-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith cups his hands behind the B3 organ, while a young drummer from New Orleans readies his brushes for the count off. Between the two of them, drummer/composer Johnathan Blake revels in the intensity passing from one generation to the next.
Having appeared on more than 50 recordings, playing with a range of musical icons from Kenny Barron to Roy Hargrove, Blake lives for those moments when he can bring together jazz’s living legacy with its future.
This past week at The Jazz Standard proved momentous for Blake’s tenure with Smith and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, marking the release of All in My Mind (Blue Note, 2018)—the band’s first ever trio recording. “It was really nice to finally have an album with both of us on it,” says Blake.
“Even though the record prior to this one, Evolution, has us on it, it’s kind of a larger ensemble; it actually features horns and piano—it didn’t really showcase the trio. So this one is actually geared towards the trio, and there’s a couple special guests: a young New Orleans drummer named Joe Dyson and Alicia Olatuja. It was a lot of fun to get back to some of that music this past week.”
Working with an artist like Dyson, Blake finds himself assuming a role that appeals to his love for the music’s lineage: the mentor. During his time playing with Dyson on Smith’s record, and later for his mentoring series at The Jazz Gallery, Blake had the chance to observe a young talent move through some significant changes in a very short while. “I hadn’t had that much experience in doing two drums, so I was a little skeptical at first about how that was going to sound,” says Blake.
“But as soon as we played, it was beautiful because it was like—no ego. We were just really trying to make music together. After that experience, I was like, ‘Man, I really want more of that.’ So, when I was asked to put together this mentoring series, he was the first person I came to. I really wanted to see how he would approach playing some of my music.
“At the first actual concert, Joe was timid—almost didn’t want a play, at first. And the last concert we did was a complete 180; he just played all over the music—almost like he wrote it. So it was really great to see how he, night after night, got more comfortable with it and by the end, it was just like, ‘Wow. He sounds amazing.’ And I remember the last concert, Kenny Barron was in the audience and after the show he comes up to us and says, ‘Y’all better record this.’ I said, ‘If that’s not a seal of approval, I don’t know what is.’”
Blake cites Barron and other legends of past generations—Roy Haynes, Jimmy Heath and Jimmy Cobb, among others—as the current torch bearers, whom the younger generation should be coming out to hear whenever they can. This week at the Village Vanguard, Blake hands the baton to Dyson, giving him a chance to play with another of Blake’s longtime mentors: trumpeter Tom Harrell.
“It was really great to see that Tom is taking a position of mentoring because he was one of the guys I looked up to, and continue to look up to, because he’s still out here doing it at 71 years old,” says Blake. “Joe was mentioning to me yesterday that he had to learn a bunch of new music because Tom was just writing all this new music for [the Vanguard gig].
“Even if some of these younger musicians can’t necessarily play with [these masters], I think the other really important thing is just going to check these people out because they’re not going to be here for another 30 years. I remember the first time I got to play with Clark Terry. He was maybe in his 80s, and he was struggling to get to the stage. But as soon as he put the trumpet to his mouth, it was almost like he was 20 or 30 years old again. I’m just really amazed by some of these people who are still out here. They’re always wanting to surround themselves with younger musicians because they want to feed off their energy. And I think it’s really important for this younger generation to get out and support some of these older musicians because really [they] are the ones bridging the gap between a traditional style and the more modern way of playing.”
When considering bridges across traditional and modern sounds, Blake can’t help but consider the sound—and culture—that’s shaped his own playing: The Philly Sound—that relaxed, grooving feel that also rides on the edge of what’s about to happen.
“I think the sound of Philly has really enabled me to play in these different settings,” he says. “I wasn’t taught just to be a jazz drummer. We were taught to be drummers, and be able to adapt to any situation we were thrown into; so, growing up I was listening to a lot of music that was coming out of the Philadelphia experience at that time. It wasn’t just jazz; I was listening to The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Gamble and Huff, who were producers.
“And as far as the growing pains, in adapting to the sound of Philly, I’ve definitely grown a lot, but it’s something that has gone through a lot of different changes. I had a tendency to play more on the edge sometimes, and I’d catch myself. So I really started trying to breathe and play slightly behind the beat, and a lot more relaxed.”
Over the years, Blake has refined his playing to embrace the sound he grew up hearing while developing those tendencies that are uniquely his. “I’m really focused on the sound that I’m getting out of the instrument and the touch that I’m attacking the instrument with,” he says “because I feel that’s a way to make it more personal, more of your own.”
As a drummer, one of Blake’s most meaningful connections is with the bass player, with whom he forms a bond on and off the bandstand. He cites Ben Street as one of his favorite calls, not only because of his harmonic sensibilities, but because of his tendency to play right on the beat, and his ability to push and pull the time.
“I think the one thing that bass players, in particular, should remember is really try to settle and find that pocket. I feel like the role of the bass is more of the timekeeper, so to speak. The drums are more of the coloring underneath motor that the bass is laying down. So what I look for in a bass player is somebody who has, of course, a great sense of time and groove and also a great harmonic sense. When I hear a bassist who has really good harmonic structure in their playing, it actually helps me to hear differently, too, and I react to what I hear them doing. But I feel like the main thing is having the bass player initiate a really good constant groove.
“I was at a masterclass one time, when I was still in school, with Ray Brown. And Ray Brown was speaking about how one of the reasons he continues to work is because he’s learned how to really internalize time. And he just played like a walking bassline at two different tempos—a medium tempo and a very up tempo. It was just amazing. He kind of just laid right in the pocket—no fancy things. And he was just like, ‘Look, you guys really have to learn how to internalize time.’”
Bringing the fundamentals conversation back to the younger generation, Blake has his eye—and ear—on a few bassists who recently have collaborated with him, including D.C. artist Rashaan Carter, who played with Blake on a new commission piece last year.
“He came in and he nailed it,” says Blake. “He sounded great. I also played with another young bassist, who I don’t think is living here yet, Jared Henderson. He has great time, great ideas and a great sense of harmony.”
A musician who believes in the value of holistic mentorship, Blake takes deliberate steps to invite younger players into his own musical narrative and the narrative that helped shape his playing, by supplementing his originals with his many mentors’ work.
“I feel there’s a way of bridging that gap between the younger musicians who might not have gotten to see some of these people like Bobby Hutcherson or Cedar Walton,” he says. “So I try to incorporate some tunes from these masters—even slightly more modern masters like Mulgrew Miller or Kenny Kirkland—just so that these younger musicians can have a chance to hear some of these people who they might not have heard live, or even on a record.”
Of his original compositions, Blake feels particularly connected to the melody, as elemental—an artistic virtue handed down from his father, violin master John Blake, Jr. “I try to make my compositions as melodic as possible,” he says.
“I don’t really think about if it’s going to be in 5/4 or any kind of time signature, I just try to hear the melody first, then expand on it and, later on, go back and say, ‘Okay, let me see what kind of harmony would work well behind this melody.’ I really want my music to be honest and natural. I’m not really trying to write difficult stuff that nobody can play. I want to write music that feels good for me, but also make people who are coming out to support and hear me feel good, also.”
Blake’s upcoming gig at the Gallery, presented by Giant Step Arts, features trio-mates Chris Potter and Linda Oh, who hadn’t played together before they began playing with Blake. “I’m really excited about this project,” says Blake.
“Chris and Linda and I first played together as a group about a year and a half ago [at the Gallery], and we called ourselves the BOP Trio for Blake, Oh and Potter. That concert was really well received, so I’m really looking forward to getting back to that group. And since I am the recipient of (the Giant Step Arts) award, they wanted to put it more under my name, so it’s going to be the Jonathan Blake Trio featuring Linda Oh and Chris Potter.”
Beyond mentorship and preserving the legacy of the music, a recurring theme in Blake’s artistic expression addresses injustice. In the coming months, he’ll be assembling the studio recording of “My Life Matters,” a six-movement suite that premiered in November, 2017 at the Gallery, and features Dayna Stephens, Joel Ross, Fabian Almazan, and Rashaan Carter.
“The subject deals with something that was always told to my sisters and myself, growing up. Our parents basically would tell us, ‘You have to not be afraid to speak up when you see injustice.’ Their thing was, ‘If you don’t say anything, you’re part of the problem.’ I felt like one way that I can [speak up] is through my music and not be afraid to say, ‘Well, this is me and I have a voice and I need to speak out about it because if I don’t, then I’m just as bad as these people who are committing these acts of injustice.”
The Johnathan Blake Trio plays The Jazz Gallery this Sunday, January 21, and Monday, January 22, 2018. The sets will be recorded live and are produced by Giant Step Arts. The group features Mr. Blake on drums, Chris Potter on saxophone and Linda Oh on bass. Sets are 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. Each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.