Tenor saxophonist Michael Blake is stretching his conceptual legs, and making fascinating music in the process. Born in Montreal, raised in Vancouver and resident in New York City since 1986, Blake created a warped past-meets-present tribute to tenor masters Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins on 2014’s exquisite Tiddy Boom and now he’s mining an historical event for a future-looking amalgam of acoustic and electronic textures. In the process, he’s also created one of the best showcases for the cream of Vancouver’s improvised music community.
The inspiration for Fulfillment is the refusal, in 1914, of Canadian officials to allow a shipload of economic migrants from India to claim refugee status. Blake was stunned to learn that a relative had played a role in refusing the migrants, and moved by current events involving Syrian migrants to compose an eight-movement suite.
Blake’s writing here is characterized by strong rhythmical motifs, which shift from a galloping tempo paired with a stalking bass/guitar combination on “Perimeters” to a floating, Coltranesque feel on “Battle At Baj Baj” and a slow, rolling tabla groove on “Exaltation.” In each, other elements are introduced to insert drama or alter the dominant mood. His most effective use of this sonic bait-andswitch technique comes on the opening “Sea Shanty,” where he contrasts the poppish-sounding guitar, electronics and Emma Postl’s ethereal vocals with a biting tenor solo and woozy-sounding fade that makes it evident that the ship is headed into perilous territory.
Vancouver mainstays Peggy Lee, cello, and Ron Samworth, guitar, both fill important roles, with Lee playing a beautiful, mournful lead on “Arrivals” and the guitarist adding distorted counterpoint to “Exaltation” and “The Soldier And The Saint.”
Ambitious and profound, Blake’s suite stumbles only on “The Ballad Of Gurdit Singh,” where his attempt at expressing the plight of the migrants in words fails to match the power of his music.
– James Hale
Fulfillment: Sea Shanty; Perimeters; The Ballad Of Gurdit Singh; Arrivals; Departures; Battle At Baj Baj; Exaltation; The Soldier And The Saint (54:47)
Personnel: Michael Blake, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; J.P. Carter, trumpet, electronics; Peggy Lee, cello; Chris Gestrin, piano, MicroMoog; Ron Samworth, electric guitar, banjo; Aram Bajakian, guitar (1, 6, 7); André Lachance, bass; Dylan van der Schyff, drums, percussion; Neelamjit Dhillon, tabla (7); Emma Postl, vocals (1, 3).
(An edited version of this review appears in the July 2016 issue.)