I've been a keen observer of Michael Blake's musical career since first hearing him on a Lounge Lizards recording almost 20 years ago. Over the years, I've heard him and his recordings in many musical settings including the Lounge Lizards, Slow Poke, Blake Tartare, Hellbent, Ben Allison's Medicine Wheel, the Herbie Nichols Project, the Jazz Composers Collective, and his solo recordings including the Vietnam-inspired Kingdom of Champa and the recent Amor de Cosmos. I'd always heard that he was originally from Vancouver but didn't know much more about the BC connection than that.
Originally when I arranged the interview and called Michael Blake, I was just hoping for some short snippets to tie together a musical feature for the A-Trane radio show but I got more than I bargained for. We talked for over an hour and a half and covered musical subjects all over the map, portions of which are reproduced in the interview below.
We both made sure we were sitting comfortably and started . . .
Nou Dadoun: Let's start off at the beginning. You were born in Montreal and you moved to California when you were young. When did you move to Vancouver?
Michael Blake: We lived in West Vancouver early on, I remember the train tracks behind the house when I was a kid; that was pretty short. I think we moved to Toronto and then back to California, my dad got this job for the opera company down there. After my parent's divorce, I came back to Vancouver with my mom and my brother in about 1972. So from the second grade to community college I was in Vancouver.
One of the things I'm curious about, one of the things we sometimes discuss on vancouverjazz.com, is the sense of jazz history; what was your early awareness of jazz and Vancouver players?
I'll always remember my first jazz experience and that was in Vancouver. In the third grade we were told a rock band was coming to the school and their name was Pacific Salt. As we were getting ready to go, we heard that it was actually a jazz band and all of us who thought we were rock and rollers were like "oh mannnnn". But as it turned out my favourite song in the world was the theme to SWAT; I liked jazz even if I didn't know it was jazz or rock-jazz like that TV music.
So this would have been about 1972, with PJ Perry?
Pacific Salt played so it was Jack Stafford and Oliver Gannon and a handful of guys who became very busy studio musicians and jazz players in Vancouver. And they played the theme to SWAT. . .
Which you really dug . . .
Yeah yeah, for the 3rd grader in me, they were rock stars! I just worshipped them after that - it was an incredible thing that they played that song of all songs and I don't even think it was a request. But that's when I knew that I liked jazz, I don't think I knew what it was before then.
The next experience after that, I was about 14 and I had started playing clarinet, my brother had moved back to Vancouver and he was playing alto sax. I wanted to play the sax but since he was on that, I was relegated to the clarinet which turned out to be a good thing. My first taste of the jazz scene was Sunday Brunch at that place in West Vancouver where they had the James Bond car - Frank Baker's I think it was called. They had Dixieland music in there and I went to hear Lance Harrison with my family.
I remember being aware of a lot of Dixie music and that trad scene out of the Hot Jazz club, we used to hear broadcasts of some of their gigs. As I got a couple of years older, I vicariously got into jazz through my brother, listening to salsa and latin jazz as an introduction. And I was playing the clarinet so I got some Benny Goodman records and Pee Wee Russell and Dave Brubeck and started playing along with records, that's how I really learned to play.
So did you have any exposure to jazz through the schools? Were you taking clarinet through school?
Photo by Brian Nation
When I was starting at Kitsilano [High School], just as I was enrolling - moving schools, they asked "do you play an instrument?" I said "the clarinet" and they said "that's it, you're in the band". Which was good because at that time I didn't know if that's what I really wanted to do.
It was great at Kits, that was a good school with good teachers. I'd had some bad experiences before that at a different school and it was really important for me to be in a positive environment. I had a great music teacher - my sight reading was terrible so I was playing third clarinet but I got straight As.
Then I went to an alternative school called Ideal School for a year and they had no music program. The school was connected to Churchill - I could have accessed their school program but I'd moved on, I was into bicycle racing and different things at that age and music went on the back burner.
After Ideal School, I went to Van Tech [Vancouver Technical Secondary School] essentially to get some sort of trade; my mom was concerned about my future - "since you don't have any calling you'd better learn a trade". So I thought I was going to be an architect or draftsman or metal worker or who knows what? But I got in their band program and I had a great band teacher, Glenn Dabbit, and the next thing I knew I was missing all my metalwork classes and playing in the stage band.
My social life changed! When I started at Van Tech, I was invisible in that school, I'd go to the library, I ate lunch by myself, I didn't have any friends and two months later, I was the most popular guy - the art nerd - in the school. I'd transformed myself but I was still very shy. I'd gone from being a very gawky overweight geeky clarinet player to being a skinny athletic "sax god". Then I heard Phil Dwyer and he just totally blew me away! I was ready to throw the saxophone in the garbage — it was such a great wakeup call hearing somebody who could really play.
In high school, the most fun about playing was starting a band with your friends. We had a band called The Basement Blues Band and we would play "On Broadway", maybe a shuffle blues, and some other stupid song over and over and over again. There's got to be some cassettes of that band around somewhere. I recently got back in touch with those guys connecting through Facebook and playing more gigs in Vancouver.
Every gig I do in Vancouver, a face from the past appears; in the case of my gig with Hellbent [in February 2007] some kids who were neighbours, and their families were there. It used to be I'd come back and I was so out of touch. There were some musician friends who I still saw, like [singer-songwriter] Kate Fenner and Ross Taggart but things have changed a lot in the last two years by playing again with some of the local guys and hooking up with new Vancouver musicians.
I have this relationship with Copenhagen as well - I go there, I fall in with these great musicians who play, it's like a home away from home. Vancouver has that feeling too, it's not my home anymore, even though I grew up there but thankfully from these new musical experiences, there's an ongoing connection.
After Van Tech, I went to VCC [Vancouver Community College] and had lessons with David Branter who had actually been my clarinet teacher when I was 14. I started to get into some fundamentals, some harmony and ear-training, hard work — some of these things came kind of slow to me. VCC was a 2 year program that was a leadin to get your bachelor's. I could have used some of those credits if I'd wanted to go to UBC but fate had its way.
The turning point was going to Banff for the first time. There was an amazing New York representation at Banff in those years when Dave Holland ran the program.
It's always surprised me how much the jazz scene in Vancouver and Canada has fed off that exposure to this incredible annual summit meeting in Banff. The enthusiasm and knowledge and everything else just gets dispersed across the country, it's great . . .
Before I went to Banff, I knew about David Liebman and the Miles and Elvin things he had done. Liebman came through doing a workshop and he just tore me apart. I was humiliated and thinking "why am I even doing this?" That first year there were all these great saxophone players and I was one of the guys who just wasn't playing yet, it was really clear. But I stuck with it, I worked really hard that year and I came back and Liebman was really blown away. He and I developed a nice rapport and talked about a lot of stuff besides music.
The respect and support from the other musicians was there in what was certainly a competitive environment. It was Dave Holland who would say things to me to really help me understand music — to trust my own musicality even though I might not have the vocabulary that other people did. It gave me a sense of trusting my instincts — I had something to say.
I thought the two or three times I went to Banff would have prepared me for New York but when I eventually came to New York it just knocked me on my ass — I was not ready for it at all! Now I see a lot of young musicians who come here and the city just doesn't faze them. I know it's a different city than it was then and that might have a lot to do with it.
I got my grant and moved there in '86, and the city was still really funky then. Luckily the one friend I met at Banff was [drummer] Ben Perowsky. There was a jam session that Liebman invited me to and Ben was there; he was the first friend I had there that wasn't a fellow Canadian on a grant.
Leif Arntzen [of the Vancouver Arntzen family] and Derry Byrne were living there. They were trumpet players doing the trumpet player thing and I didn't really want to hang out with them. I love them as people but the trumpet exercises were not pleasant with a hangover at ten in the morning. They were living in Spanish Harlem and that was where I stayed sleeping on their couch; I'd lived in San Francisco and I knew what a big American city was like but it just didn't compare, particularly being in a rough neighbourhood. Actually, now when I'm in Vancouver I think Hastings Street is rougher than anything here in New York.
New York has changed so much, there's always going to be 9/11 but the drawing line is really pre-Giuliani and post-Giuliani. A lot of things are better now but lifestyles and cultures and art and possibilities that could happen in New York before don't necessarily get to happen now because of the income requirement to live here. But I've been here for 20 years and I have no intention of living anywhere else.
So in the early years, how hard was it for you to find people to play with?
Thank god I'd met Ben, it was like when I went to Van Tech and I didn't know anyone and my friend Jay Ono said "you play clarinet, come to the pep band rehearsal". I went and I don't remember a lonely day after that. So in New York it was the same thing. When I met Ben it was "I'm playing here, let's hang out".
So a lot of it was just hanging out and socializing and meeting girls, being young guys in the city and we really clicked. Playing with Ben was fantastic and all these years later, we're still buddies — we were hanging out in Moscow two weeks ago! It's the great thing about life, you really do just pick up with people where you left off.
Eventually, I just started hooking up with people. Like [saxophonist] Jay Rodriguez who's a big part of the Groove Collective. We got really tight and he was the guy who got me the work I needed so that I could survive. Basically all the merengue gigs he didn't want to do because he was playing in a pretty hot salsa band.
But that's good training too, that gives you some pretty interesting rhythms . . .
Yeah, it was great! I learned how to articulate and I had to fake it but the merengue guys were ok with the way I faked it because I swung and I played the music with the right feel. It didn't matter that I couldn't do the articulations exactly how the Dominicans did because they'd learned through classical saxophone techniques. It was almost more like playing classical saxophone than jazz. But there were moments for solos and these guys would just love it when I'd go off and improvise on stuff.
There was a lot of hanging around in some crazy neighbourhood at 2 in the morning in a car with a Budweiser with a straw waiting for the gig to start. Then finally getting on a stage in a room and there'd be these beautiful Latina girls dancing and everyone just looked amazing; it was a great time, you'd try to hook up with anyone who spoke English. I felt really out of place but the musicians were great even though it was so poorly organized and such a time waster.
Photo by Josephine Ochej
But for making some money and in terms of live music, when you think back that there were a hundred merengue bands playing on any given night, clubs with 3 or 4 horn players in every band, there was a lot of work. And then the salsa scene, and the R 'n B scene, that's a lot of live music going on. But with jazz, there wasn't a lot of opportunity to play and get gigs.
After that I started getting more weddings and club date/corporate things, that was a long process — between the merengue gigs, getting the odd jazz gig here and there and just scraping by. Planting roots in New York and really becoming a resident of the city. A year and a half into my stay and the grant was all gone. I had to find a way to survive and I didn't have papers — it was really living in the moment — good thing to do when you're 23. I spent a lot of time studying jazz and transcribing, I was just obsessed with jazz and doing my homework and learning and taking lessons.
Like I discovered Joe Lovano then, nobody knew who Joe was then. New York was the right place to be. All the things that were going on then that were defining the downtown scene.
That was really the burgeoning of the downtown scene, people now look at it as the golden age of the downtown scene when the Knit [Knitting Factory] was first starting out.
I agree, it's cool that you know a lot about that and you're familiar with Evan [Lurie]. It was a really diverse community — it was crazy because you had James White [and the Blacks] and Defunkt and the Lounge Lizards and Zorn and some really amazing jazz. There was Charles Gayle and Thomas Chapin and all my buddies doing their thing. Steve Bernstein doing Spanish Fly. The list goes on and on and on — Marty Ehrlich, and there was Don Byron; you could go just hear stuff, it was so cheap and so cool and so casual and I miss it so much. There's nothing now. There's no place to go and hang out and hear each other — that happened, that's not going to happen again. If there's going to be a burgeoning scene in a city, it's not going to be a bunch of fifty year-olds. We were young, we did our thing and now we're in a different place, and that's ok.
As you say, that downtown scene is gone. Zorn's got the Stone but it's a curated thing. Not that it's elitist but it's different. A lot of the same people are going to play there all the time. Particularly since John [Zorn] kind of treats jazz like it's a dirty word so he doesn't want the place to be a jazz club. And rightly so — he's trying to create a scene for different music — there are already lots of jazz clubs, so he's got something specific that he's connected to and doing.
It's interesting — I'm not really part of that — I mean I'm a part of a branch of that tree but I've only played at the Stone once. I had to ask one of the curators to hire me — one of my best friends. So I'm not seen as part of that. When I put a record out and the Times reviews it, I've been referred to as the embodiment of the best of the downtown scene. I'm perceived like that by people who are aware of but outside that community — but within the community, to be honest, I never really felt a part of it.
It's funny, it's like when you've got people outside looking into a goldfish bowl, it's hard to tell if someone is standing at the front of the goldfish bowl or the back of the goldfish bowl . . .
And like most goldfish bowls, the image is warped by how you're looking in there. But I'm glad that I'm connected with that through the Lounge Lizards and having played with so many great musicians.
So to go back to that, the legend goes that John Lurie heard you in a club . . .
It was in a club. My buddy Scott Harding who's a great engineer and musician — his brother [Brian] is a trombone player and they're from West Van — Scott was in the club that night. My dad was in the club that night too. I remember Scott saying "John Lurie just walked in and he's checking you out." I knew John Lurie from some movies and my brother had Lounge Lizards records, and I'd just seen him on [David Sanborn's] Night Music TV show . . .
The strange and beautiful commercial for Voice of Chunk . . .
Yeah right, so I figured if we had a conversation, at least we'd have something to talk about; I knew who he was, I'd just seen him play.
I went up to the bar and he was saying in his low way [low voice] "this band really stinks but I like the saxophone player" and I said "thanks man!" - I was standing right behind him eavesdropping. He turned around and went "hey!" and was really open. He said "you've got a great sound" and he really took me under his arm. I have to say, in those first few years, I never looked up to anybody like I looked up to John. He was just such a charismatic figure and there were celebrities coming to gigs, and it was New York. All of a sudden, I went from doing these merengue gigs and being nowhere to being in this hot, amazingly hip spot — it was good luck, good timing and Lurie heard that I was trying to do something.
So how long was it after that that you actually started playing with the Lounge Lizards?
Well, for about 3 months it was just John calling me and saying "don't disappear" and "I want to start this new band". We'd have these long conversations, he'd call pretty much every night — I know he liked me but he had a fair amount of spare time on his hands I guess.
And he wanted to make sure that you didn't wander off somewhere else because he had a spot for you . . .
It was flattering and as an artist, it's easy to feel that you're not good enough. Already at that age I was getting there, I was 25 and I wasn't going to get in Elvin's band and I wasn't going to get to play with Max Roach; I couldn't keep up with Steve Coleman and that music at the time . . .
the M-Base thing . . .
. . . and I was playing in all these funk bands and merengue bands and it wasn't really why I came to New York. I could play the shit out of a ballad, I was a great saxophone player at that point, I started getting it and I was playing well and yet there were just no gigs . . .
for the music that you wanted to play . . .
I was trained as a jazz player, I knew the changes, I knew the history but I didn't go to a school. The guys, the teachers who are in those schools — in particular, we're talking about Berklee [the Berklee School of Music in Boston] — they hear those young players and they can say "that kid's got it". And a few years later, they'll consider using them in their band. There's a word of mouth thing going on and if no one is aware of you playing and you're not connected, you're just not going to get that opportunity.
So this was a really important moment in my life, getting into the Lounge Lizards. Really more popular than any jazz group was at the time, there were lines around the block. We filled Town Hall, we were selling out shows, it was this incredible orchestra. The music was no longer fake-jazz and tongue in cheek, it was serious! John [Lurie] was getting this press and these accolades that he was doing something totally innovative which in many respects he was. And it was incredibly powerful music, in a way like Coltrane's music . . .
There was a lot of intense stuff going on there . . .
Oh man, intense music with Calvin [Weston] the drummer just going ape-shit while I got to freak out. I mean, I could build a solo over the course of about ten minutes and John would be yelling behind me at ten minutes: "Play Michael Play Playyyyyy!". When somebody's yelling that behind you and they mean it, you could feel the energy on stage and the audience would just freak out. I would finish the solo and it would be RRRRAAAARRRRRRRR, 600 people screaming, it just doesn't get any better than that. And John had the ability — he's such a good bandleader — we would sweat and work to make his music happen. We had a good 4 or 5 years like that and then you start to get into a different role in the relationship with the band. But still, to be in a band for 10 years is a long time — that band lasted 20 years and I was just in the second half of it.
The point that I was trying to make was that I'd realized "so much for that old dream." I wasn't going to play with Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis wasn't going to ask me to join his new sextet. I was open to that stuff, I never even knew there was a division between downtown and uptown like those things that the critics were talking about — whether it was racial or musical. I just didn't have that kind of thinking — music is just music. Let's just play, what's the big deal? I still don't get those divisions. I set out to be good at everything I could.
I know what you mean. On the radio show I'm as likely to play 30s Lionel Hampton stuff as Cecil or anybody who's out there now, like your music for that matter, put all my music on the same plate . . .
That makes for awesome radio, when one minute there's Louis Armstrong Hot Seven and the next there's some Sun Ra, that's what radio is supposed to be. That's why I always tuned in to CFRO. There's a channel here, WKCR, which is the Columbia channel and the jazz programming they do is run by Phil Schaap, a great historian. But the new music and avant garde programming they have, I get to hear some free player who I normally would never get to hear or some classic record that I never knew about, some Sam Rivers album or something.
Music's got the power to change your life. That's what I love about understanding the tradition and being able to play any style of music and being able to deal with it on a technical level as well as how to play. That's what makes jazz musicians so great, being able to be so flexible, they can move through all these different things and do the right thing.
But when did I suddenly discover my music? I'd been writing and leading bands through the whole period of time we've been talking about, from high school through New York. I'd written music but through the Lounge Lizards, I'd suddenly realized that that was the way I saw music — without boundaries, and being open-minded.
Like when somebody would say "I love Ali Farka Toure", and I'd say "what was that word? Oh it's a name." And you'd hear the music and say, I know what this is, you heard it in a restaurant or in a bar or someone's house and you fall in love with it. Getting to hear his last New York performance, if I didn't know John, I may never have been introduced to that. Pygmy music was big at the time, and music from Morocco and it was all really important for my development. I came back to Vancouver and I wasn't playing standards and swing any more and it was weird — there was a community of musicians there that I loved so much but I really had to say, "that's not what I do". My music is going to be about something else.
I came out to Vancouver and it was winter, and I was hanging out with my brother and his girlfriend and we were really tight and his girlfriend's best friend was there. There was two feet of snow on the ground and it was just beautiful. I got this live Lounge Lizards record and the music was becoming multi-dimensional. We were having this incredible spiritual experience, hearing the music, hearing me in the music and recognizing my potential - "oh, that's what I can do". And then sitting the next day on my grandma Blake's piano in my brother's apartment and hammering out these new tunes and that was the beginning of my first New York group, Free Association. And one of those tunes is "The Creep". That's a tune I played in many different groups and different situations, it's like a little classic . . .
I know that tune, it's got a bit of the Fables of Faubus thing to it . . .
Yup, it's got a little bit of Duke Ellington in it, the Mingus, a bit of the Pink Panther, and so many people dug that tune. It was the first time somebody said about a composition I wrote "man, that is such a great tune". And that's when I realized that this is what I want. I love jazz but I want the compositions to be unique and good and fun. And to tell a story. I didn't want the heady intellectual shit. I can really admire that music but it doesn't seem that social to me.
To go out of order a little bit, I think that's why people love that Slowpoke group so much, the warmth and the whole vibe of the way that group plays . . .
That's a good point because Slowpoke really wasn't like the downtown community — the lyrical quality and the aspect of beauty. Because I'm obsessed with beauty in music and melody and rhythm and harmony. I'm not obsessed with the linear multi-meter intervalic 20th century European aspect of jazz . . .
The whole technical mathematical aspect . . .
Yeah, I'm intrigued by it, I get it, it's in there, I want it to have its place. And "Amor de Cosmos" [on Songlines] is an
example because I never even knew I could write music that sounded like that. But it totally sounds like my music. It's natural, it's just another thing.
But to just do that? I couldn't play just free jazz improv all the time and I didn't just want to just play funk grooves with solos and I didn't want to just play needle-drop going from one thing to another like a John Zorn kind of idea . . .
The cut and paste kind of composition like "Spillane" . . .
There were so many clear options and my idea was that, I'm just going to learn all of them. I had an advantage over someone like Lurie because I'd had school and I had a lot of technique on my instrument and I really could play Charlie Parker heads where John could barely get through "Ornithology". The fact is that although I looked up to John, on the horn I'm a hundred times better than him and always was. I had to keep a lid on that, I never would have learned anything if I'd said "you can't teach me anything" because he could. That was my strength because my ego and sense of musicianship was quite humble and I believed that you can learn from anybody. And John taught me tons of shit because I was into hearing it. A lot of what happens in jazz is, "who's really playing?" and you start to pick favorites.
I'm just glad I never liked Hank Mobley so much that I couldn't listen to Roland Kirk, because Hank's not going to be on the desert island when I just have beach and coconuts . . . and Roland Kirk, there's so much variety and history, I can get New Orleans, the craziest shit or amazing versions of pop songs, or three saxophones at the same time. I'm more interested in [absorbing] the vast amount of stuff that artists have contributed and that takes a lot of energy as well.
I was very impressed when I met [trumpeter] Brian Lynch at a gig at Lincoln Center. He's just such an incredible jazz virtuoso playing that music in a way I could only imagine. So devoted to doing that yet we started talking about Sun Ra, he's a total Sun Ra expert and knew that music so intimately, and I would have just assumed that he's a latin jazz guy by his playing and his music. But some cats just don't have that openness and curiosity about other music.
I was coming back to Vancouver after the Lounge Lizards and talking about all this African music before that stuff was on, I got into the Ethiopiques stuff . . .
That volume 4 is still my favorite . . . [mid-70s Ethiopian instrumental works by arranger Mulatu Astatqè]
Before [the Jim Jarmusch film] "Broken Flowers", like that song is a movie now. . .
I'd forgotten that was on the soundtrack. I remember Bill Murray was driving along in the car and all of a sudden I think "wait a second, I know that music" . . .
It's like "it's a secret, nobody knows about this" and all of a sudden it's out there in pop culture. Somebody's just let the cat out of the bag. Oh shit, I thought that was the one really hip thing I could turn people onto and then it's gone.
But that's when I started putting together my group Free Association in about '91 or '92, did my first gig at the Knit and started doing my thing. The musicians I got were good, really good — with some of the music, they raised it to another level. I don't think the writing was that strong.
I still play with those guys, I did a kind of an all-star thing at 55 Bar last week. it was actually the first anniversary of when my father passed away, and I was playing 55 Bar that night too. I had a whole bunch of friends around me, [tuba player] Marcus Rojas and [slide trumpeter] Steve Bernstein — Perowsky was there, Creston Osgoode my Danish friend was there. The guy who runs 55 Bar offered me that night, and I thought "that's weird" — of all the nights to go into there again. But I thought, that's going to be a really shitty day for me — there's nothing I'd rather do than get a bunch of my friends together to play music. There was a line around the block for this band and it was an 8 piece band — no rehearsal and they're all sight reading music, and we can pull that off! With those musicians, I can just trust them and things are going to happen . . .
My four year old is tugging on my ankle — his Looney Tunes DVD finished. But I just wanted to ask you how your work with [the kid's TV show for the Nick Jr. cable network] the Backyardigans thing came about . . .
Evan [Lurie, John Lurie's brother, a keyboard/bandoneon player, composer and original member of the Lounge Lizards] had done great music for a show and then a series called Oswald for [children's TV network] Nick Jr. Evan was hired when they conceived the Backyardigan's show; it was such a great choice! Since every episode is a different genre in an imaginary world, they don't have a library of underscore music for it and every show needs to have a new underscore. My soprano playing is featured in the theme in which the kids go into an imaginary world. I've been lucky — I got to play on quite a few of the scores where they needed horns. And then Evan got so busy, he started hiring out the underscores and I've done five so far. . .
Any chance of that music seeing a release?
That music is all owned by Nick Jr. When I write original music for it, I own the copyright but not the actual performance [ (c) vs (p)]. They do release episodes on CD — I think there are 2 Backyardigans CDs out and you hear a lot more of the music because it's not mixed down like it is on the TV show. Evan's co-writer is Doug Wieselman, clarinet and guitar player . . .
I know his stuff, I'm a big fan of the old [Wayne Horvitz group] The President . . .
Doug did the episode that was the Carl Stalling genre of music which means that he's got to write 30 musical ideas and have all this humour and do all this stuff in this short period of time. This stuff is all over the map and he nailed it! I was flabbergasted by his writing ability.
It's tough to do. When you listen to Carl Stalling, who was the musical director for all of those old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, he used to bring in so many disparate elements. Even just the Looney Tunes theme, it's got the Hawaiian guitar and the snappy horn parts and the calliope and the jangley little guitar stuff, it's just incredible. Bringing all those elements together and making it work. And people hear it and it evokes something and they don't realize the complexity that goes into it. How hard it is to put all that stuff together.
And in those days, they had to do it on a soundstage — nowadays you can score it in a music program and play it in sections and know it's going to work.
There are a couple of CDs out of the Carl Stalling Project which compiles and collects a lot of those original recordings from that era.
To change direction again, you've got a recent release that's a tribute to Lucky Thompson [The World Awakes: A Tribute to Eli "Lucky" Thompson on Stunt Records].
Just over a year ago, we recorded it in Copenhagen produced by Denmark Radio. Although it features my working group there, Blake Tartare, we didn't feel that it was a Blake Tartare record. Lucky's lineage and story is so fascinating but we were playing my arrangements and the Blake Tartare energy is definitely in there. I was really lucky (excuse the pun) that the Danes knew his music.
Like Soren Friest the producer at the label [Stunt Records] knew Lucky and had heard him in Copenhagen when he was an ex-pat and knew of his mental instability. Soren could tell me what it was like to hang out with him. Lucky was burning, this guy could play tempos and ballads, he was just amazing. I was intrigued with his writing and inspired by this beautiful soprano sound.
I knew John [Coltrane], got into [Steve] Lacy and a bit of Wayne [Shorter] but it was Lucky who really showed me the possibility of a different sound on the soprano. Right to the end, there were some albums from the early 70s, his soprano is so pretty, so in tune and lovely light wooden tone to his soprano playing.
The album also ended up digging up these pictures from when he lived in Copenhagen, crazy shots of him that no-one has ever seen. Liner notes by people who knew him, so much love went into that album. But that album hasn't got the push it deserved, I'm the only American artist on that label and they have a lot of releases.
I hope you'll be bringing some with you next week because it sounds like something that deserves a wider audience.
I'll have them for the concert because they don't even have distribution in Canada although I think you can get them online.
I was really psyched that I got to write for strings on that record. Even though it was just a couple of strings, we managed to get a section sound. It makes it special because I wanted to do something for Lucky that wasn't just a blowing session. It had to have a completely non-commercial intent. I was originally just supposed to go in with a quartet and play a bunch of Lucky Thompson tunes and play some saxophone solos. But because the Danish are so pro-art I could go to Soren and say I want to add these horn parts and woodwind parts and so on. That's the way it had to be because I don't do blowing session records. If you want a blowing session, there are a hundred thousand saxophone players out there who can do that.
I'm very happy with that record, very quick turnaround, came out in Europe in the late summer and I've been able to let go of it, it's out there, it's made, what's next?
So "Amor de Cosmos" [Songlines] was next . . .
"Amor de Cosmos" was such a different thing — before that actually — we recorded it a year and a half ago . . .
How did "Amor de Cosmos" come about?
In May of 2005, we did 2 nights at the Cellar with my original quartet with Ross Taggart, Blaine Wikjord and Ken Lister — we did a lot of my jazz songs and that music and that was a ball. The next week I took some of the other writings and music I do and did two nights at Rime with Andre [Lachance] and Dylan [Van der Schyff] and Chris [Gestrin] and a number of other great guys, Brad Turner and Bernie Arai . . .
Did you know those guys from before?
Adam Thomas and Bernie Arai I didn't really know. Brad I'd sat in with, Dylan we'd shaken hands but I didn't really know him very well. I had tried to sell Tony Reif [owner of Songlines] on my Free Association band back in '93 with Steve Bernstein and [Dave] Tronzo and Ben Allison. I had a rapper on some of the things so you can imagine when Tony heard the rapper. . .
I know Tony, I can imagine . . .
At the time, we didn't really have anything in common, Tony's stuff was serious and brainy and in my typical insecurity I felt he'd think my stuff was stupid and wouldn't be smart enough. I look back at that music now and I know that it wasn't the right kind of music for Tony's label.
But Tony Reif came to Rime that week and heard me play with those guys. He said "this is great, we should talk about doing something". It felt really good, Chris and I had an immediate hookup so that was a good start and Tony pursued it. He said "what do you want to hear" and I said I like vibes, marimba and percussion and things like that and he suggested Sal Ferreras, boy did he ever know the right guy to get!
André Lachance and I had played together a number of times when I would come into town and sit in with Kate Hammett-Vaughan somewhere. We had a great time hanging and playing together so I knew him the best of all those guys.
Then it was a question of how are we going to do this? We set out to get a Canada Council grant. You had to send in some music so we set up a session to record the music for the grant. Never got the grant, didn't want to put it out initially — I had tendonitis and I was tired — but I came back to it with fresh ears three months later and said, "this is great!"
We made the decision then to put that recording out. There's an hour of music we really like, what's holding us back? I knew the guys played great but the more I listened to it, the better it got. There's a relaxed maturity to it and I feel that this may be one of the best records I ever made. It has that quality of being rewarding in concentrated listening but not interfering with conversation — it's a social music. The sound of it is so phenomenal because of Tony's commitment to high quality audio. Hopefully one day I'll get to listen to the [SACD] 5 channel mix.
Maybe at Tony's house, he's the only guy I know who actually has one. . .
I know, I'm going to have to rent my local movie theatre here in Brooklyn to listen to the record.
From the liner notes, it seems that the intention going in was to reflect your BC roots, is that right? Or was that something you thought about afterwards?
We recorded it in September 2006 and my grandfather had just passed away. He was 101. I had a really deep connection with him when I was young in BC, and I was in awe of the land and the mountains — they're big things! It's hard not to feel humble but our relationship to the earth is tainted with industry and tourism. The land to me is powerful. It upstages anything in the city. I was always interested in First Nations history — if I'd stayed in Vancouver I could see getting into archeology and really understanding that history. That mystery is captured in Emily Carr's work, but I'm preaching to the converted, you live there for a reason.
It's interesting — having travelled around the province, how much First Nations culture and history and tradition and communities are part of the fabric of everyday life once you get outside Vancouver and Victoria. It just seems to get swallowed up by the cities but gets stronger the closer you get to the land . . . but getting back to Amor de Cosmos, you're going to be reuniting with the same group.
We've got all the guys and I'm very happy that the record has been so well received. It got best album of 2007 in allaboutjazz.com, which is a high profile website. Downbeat gave it four stars, rated as excellent. People have really taken a liking to that tune, "The Washaway" - the African-inspired piece, the way Chris [Gestrin] plays the Rhodes part, he got it in such a deep way. He found this little counter voice leading thing in the groove and that's everything about the groove that I want. The Song has such a lovely feel to it, Dylan's groove and everything.
People who came out were saying, it's so nice to hear Dylan playing your music and getting to hear him play songs. Dylan just said "I like to play compositions and songs and grooves, why don't people think I like to play that?"
Dylan can play anything . . .
That's for sure, it's like people saying you're the guy who does this, you're the guy who does that. . . Man, I'm the guy who can do anything, that's the guy I am!
I'm really excited to spend some time with these guys and now that the record's made, it's internalized. Now I can just relax and play it! And just focusing on the music from the record for the concert is nice, I often have to go through music and it's painstaking to decide "What am I going to play?" What new things do I have to arrange and write and teach people? Will I have time to pull it together and all that? It's all done. . .
So you're in town for a few days, performing with this group at Cap College on Saturday January 19th, and with Chris Gestrin for his CD release ["after the city has gone : quiet" on Songlines] at the Cellar on Tuesday January 22nd.
Even though I'm not on Chris' record, I'm just going to play with the trio. He wants to do some things from the record but he also wants to just play. It'll be great — Chris, Andre, Dylan and I get to play again after the gig.
I guess that we should wrap things up, it's been about an hour and a quarter and there were a whole bunch of other things that we never even touched on, like "Kingdom of Champa" which is one of my favorite of your records and the inspirations of traveling to Vietnam. Slowpoke and Hellbent and Blake Tartare and everything else, you're such a busy guy but I guess we'll have to wait for another time.
It's a very exciting time, it's great to have so many records coming out. Amor and Lucky are happening but the conception and timing of them was some time ago. Just to catch up with what I'm doing right now, I've got a new group of young players in their late 20s. Actually the bass player is Michael Bates from Vancouver . . .
I did a radio interview with him in the fall. He was here with his Outside Sources band and put on a great show at Ironworks.
Michael's a great writer — really focused and into playing my music which was quite different than what he was doing. He brought in a great piano player named Jess Staken and I brought in Ryan Blotnick, a great guitar player from Maine [with a new release on Songlines: Music Needs You] and a great drummer Russell Lacy. It's the first time I've had a rehearsed band since Blake Tartare when the Danes were living here four or five years ago and that was still really loose in comparison. I've always been a much looser band leader but this is tighter and still has room to be creative.
The new band is called Michael Blake Band and it's not all instrumental music, I'm singing! I've got a fair amount of original instrumental material but I'm also mixing in vocal compositions and arrangements of things that I really like. I've been working on my singing for about 9 months. It's the one good thing that came out of a painful separation with my wife, sitting at the piano and working through things.
I've got a handle on how to sing a standard — the key and where my voice is sitting — I've figured it out! There are so many bad male singers, I can't stand the whole Frank Sinatra fakey-thing and I felt I could sing Irving Berlin and How Deep is the Ocean in a fresh new way because of my approach. Instrumental music under the jazz flagship is always going to be hard to get out there to a wider audience.
I find people who get introduced to my music now who have no experience with jazz, they'll hear a tune from a Blake Tartare record and email me and say "what is this music? I'm a film-maker, can I use this song in my movie?"
The jazz label controversy has been raging since the 30s. Jazz is such a big umbrella that nobody really knows what it is — there's no definition that will satisfy everybody, why scare people off with those labels?
Rock is a big umbrella that covers a lot but it doesn't have the same negative connotation that jazz does. A guy tried to pick a fight with me in a bar in Thailand because he said that jazz is just rubbish. There's a lot of music that rises to the surface and that people have access to, especially with jazz vocalists, that isn't saying a lot about our culture, or politics or even love or relationships on more than a superficial level.
In the case of someone like Michael Buble or Diana [Krall] or Harry Connick or Norah Jones, it's entertainment but why does it have to be so safe all the time? I feel that people don't go for it, it's so bad for the music if it's always so flat all the time. Even "Take Five" sounds like a totally modern thing in comparison because of the energy and the swing behind it.
The new group that I was talking about — even from the one gig we've done so far — people who come out to hear my horn and have expectations, maybe they won't like it for a while, maybe they'll never like it. But there were people who'd never heard me before and really dug it. The singing brings a whole new dimension to the possibilities of how I can express myself. I don't know where it's going to go, I have to be careful, it's a fine line. I hope it'll bring more people into the music and that's all I could ask for.
ND: A good note to end on. It was great meeting you over the phone and finally filling in some of that history, thanks for taking the time and we'll talk soon, I'll see you at the concert.