Dan Blake – Aquarian Suite (2011)

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When taking in Julian Lage’s uniquely poetic Gladwell earlier this year, I sensed something uncommonly creative about Lage’s saxophone player, Dan Blake, and his ability to blend in flawlessly with a cello and play music that reconciled jazz and folk and classical music. He even contributed music that fit perfectly into this eclectic formula, with “However.” But, as Blake’s own burgeoning career as a leader makes clear, my senses hadn’t been failing me.

Last week, Blake followed up on his debut album Party Suite (2005), which was a celebration of jazz that stretches from Sidney Bechet to Eric Dolphy. Blake’s backward-inspired forward-thinking compositions on that album were good enough to earn him the ASCAP Young Jazz Composer’s Award. Armed with that honor and another win, from the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, Blake has finally followed up six years later with The Aquarian Suite.

Retaining only bassist Jorge Roeder on bass from the debut record, Blake swaps a sax player for Jason Palmer’s trumpet; Richie Barshay handles drums and percussion. Once again going chordless, Blake invests tremendous confidence that his intricate melodies will come across without the need for a piano or guitar, and once again, it’s justified. That is because his deft utilization of the ideals of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Andrew Hill, creating songs that start with a blues foundation, drags them through bebop and take them to very modern places. And yet, retain the feel of all the small-combo acoustic jazz that came before it.

“The Whistler” typifies that feel perfectly. With Palmer’s trumpet alongside Blake’s tenor sax, there’s that traditional front line sound, but the relaxed gait of the rhythm section opens things up and the air in between them and the horn players creates the space for Blake and Palmer to maneuver freely. They exploit both this arrangement and the song structure to swing like champs. “How’s It Done” (Youtube below) includes a passage that seems inspired by Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud” without expressly mimicking it, but also suggests a place where the Brown-Roach band might have headed had the band not been stopped in its tracks by Brown’s sudden death in 1956.

“Mister Who,” derivative of Monk’s “Skippy,” makes great use of melody working with an impossibly varying tempo, something few outside of Thelonious have mastered as well. “Aquarian” builds up over an extended period, but by the climax, Blake and Palmer are blasting away with combustive, simultaneous solos. The ending “Epilogue: Cavemen Do It Too” shows us just how funky straight ahead jazz can get, and Barshay’s ability to set the subtly shifting pacing is key to making this song pop.

In all, Blake has made another record that wins on composition, performance and arrangement. Evocative of the past but pushing hard at boundaries, Aquarian Suite represents Blake’s deep mastery of the craft. There’s an awful lot of talented and skilled jazz practitioners among the younger generation, and it’s clear from listening to this album that Blake belongs in the forefront of this crop.

Aquarian Suite was released on October 17 by Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records. Visit Dan Blake’s website.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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