Vancouver native and saxophonist Michael Blake came back to this Canadian city after residing in NYC for a quarter century, and brought home a wealth of ideas with him.
In The Grand Scheme Of Things opens up a new phase in Blake’s career, including a recording legacy that goes back fifteen years. Blake formed an exciting new quartet in Vancouver he calls “The Variety Hour” and I totally get how he came up with the name when listening to their first offering, In The Grand Scheme Of Things.
The Variety Hour comprises of Blake on tenor sax, J.P. Carter (trumpet, electronics), Chris Gestrin (Fender Rhodes and Moog micromoog synthesizer) and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). Wait, no bass, you say? Gestrin’s Moog takes care of that. All these plugged into devices known for making arcade noises might lead one to think this is some sleek, fusion jazz or funk jazz. The Variety Hour does a lot of things on this record but none of that kind of stuff; this is real, advanced modern jazz. The circuit-bent instruments never take over and define the shapes of the songs. That’s because they’re used judiciously and let Blake’s sax, Carter’s trumpet and even van der Schyff’s drums be the focal points.
Through ten Blake originals and an Otis Redding cover, the four perform each song as its own entity but mostly guided by some broad principles of open-ended development, modal structures, and pure emotion. Like, for example, the hurt emitted from Carter’s trumpet to begin “Road To Lusaka,” a track that breaks open when the Moog instigates a high-register repeating figure where Blake provides interesting counterpoints to Carter. “The Variety Hour” was actually written with the vintage synthesizer in mind, but arranged in such a way that it co-exists organically with the acoustic voices. Carter combining with reverberating notes from an electric piano creates a fragile sonic beauty, and both horn players sprinkle short, harmonized phrases throughout.
“Cybermonk” is an unexpected left turn into swing, and yet more unexpected in how well Gestrin approximates a walking acoustic bass line with that Moog, even reeling off a convincing “bass” solo with the instrument. It nearly steals the show from Blake’s meaty, gruff sax performance. Van der Schyff’s drums roam freely on the open range that is “Willie (The Lonely Cowboy),” as the melody vacillates between major and minor, and the horns stretch it out. Carter’s aching trumpet brings the song to a passionate conclusion.
I hear many instances where Blake and his band conjure up Miles Davis during his ’67-’69 transition period (“A View of Oblivion” seems inspired by Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary”), but never more so than on “The Searchers.” The electro-modal jazz of this song is highlighted by some rather agitated drums rumbling underneath Blake and Carter’s slowly evolving harmonic developments. “Cordiale Drive” is reminiscent of early fusion Miles, too, but through the filter of classic 70s ECM recordings by Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal.
It’s not all about late 60s modal excursions, however. “Big Smile” is the pretty ballad of the batch, underscored by Carter’s uniquely quavering trumpet, and that Redding tune, “Treat Her Right” is spiritually glowing soul-jazz that puts everything mixed way back but for Blake’s big gospel tone, with occasional harmony from Carter.
In The Grand Scheme Of Things is one of those records that’s evocative of many but duplicative of none. With a great assist from some hometown friends, Michael Blake made a truly different jazz record through an imaginative recycling of old ideas along with a few fresh ones.