An Interview

Michael Blake (I)

This interview with Michael Blake was conducted by email during August-September 2007.

Tony Reif: You’ve been living in New York now for 20 years but you grew up in the Vancouver area and that’s where your jazz roots were laid down, so to speak. You’ve been back to Vancouver various times with different bands of yours from New York and Denmark, but before this you hadn’t formed a Canadian group. What led you to do so?

Michael Blake: After living in NYC for almost 20 years I didn’t know many musicians in Canada. I stayed in touch with a few old friends in Vancouver like Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Ross Taggart and Ken Lister but for the most part I was pretty out of touch with the Vancouver scene. Brad Turner and I had played a few dates together. Andre Lachance and I have the most history as we played together with Kate back in the early 90s. A couple of years ago I organized a very successful reunion of my original Quartet (Ross Taggart, Ken Lister and Blaine Wikjord) at the Cellar club. Since I also wanted to perform some of my more adventurous compositions I decided to play with some younger players at a new venue across town. Both weeks brought out loads of fans and friends and also introduced me to a wealth of young talent. I immediately enjoyed playing with Andre, Brad and Dylan and especially hit it off with Chris Gestrin. Chris really impressed me with his all-around musicianship and creativity. Personally, I felt that they understood my playing and writing on a deep level and were able put their individual voices into the music.

TR: Amos de Cosmos (aka William Alexander Smith) was an interesting character in early BC and Canadian politics – someone who invented a colorful name for himself as part of a sometimes eccentric public persona. In the liner notes you say that he became a catalyst for reinventing yourself and connecting again with your personal/family history here (one little piece of which is that priceless old snapshot we used for the cover, of a chained lynx looking perhaps a tad unhappy as it eyes an ordinary cat walking past eying it – I suppose there must be a musical metaphor in there somewhere!). Looking back now on the process of forming the band and composing/arranging for it, what did you discover – about your own history, your musical roots, the scene in Vancouver, or whatever?

MB: Yes, that photo says a lot. It is an excellent image for the cover. I stumbled across Mr. Smith’s bio and he just seemed to personify late 19th Century Canadian history: a nation riding on training wheels. On one hand he wanted to build public schools and bring more civil liberties to his BC constituents, but on the other hand he was prejudiced against native people. My beliefs, many of which stem from my Canadian upbringing, are not nationalistic. But you can see a unique character in Amor de Cosmos. He was an ambitious and devoted visionary. Perhaps after being rejected by his peers and constituency he just went mad. I’m not in politics and I don’t intend to build any nations but I know how challenging it is to be different from the mainstream. When learning how to play in Vancouver – especially after getting my fundamentals together – I never quite fit into the mainstream scene or the avant-garde scene either. Once I got to NYC I met the same problems, but after a few years I landed in the “Downtown” scene where more music was embraced and explored. Then I became a composer and arranger and that’s when my creative mind began to flow. There is a very clear line drawn from my earlier Vancouver appearances and the ones after I began to be more my own man. Of course I didn’t change my name to something exotic like Mr. Smith did.

TR: Who or what were important catalysts for you as a player and composer?

MB: Early on I’d have to say it all came from records and local players. I loved Miles Davis and the usual jazz icons, some of whom at the end of their careers rolled through Vancouver. I heard Benny Goodman (with Buddy Tate on tenor), Count Basie on a Pablo tour, Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson. I also followed the great sax players in town like Pat Caird, Perry White, Phil Dwyer, Campbell Ryga, Dick Smith and Fraser MacPherson. Then there were some others doing totally different things with improvised music – among them Paul Plimley, Coat Cooke, Ron Samworth and Al Wertz. I often tuned into Gavin Walker’s radio program to learn about players and composers that I didn’t know about.

After finding my way in NYC I was influenced by bandleaders like John Lurie, Ben Allison and Steven Bernstein – close friends and strong conceptualists – who were generous with information. I learned a lot from them about leading a band and stretching out a good idea to the max. David Tronzo taught me about phrasing and blending voices. Medeski, Martin and Wood were my backup band from time to time and they did some wonderful things with groove and free improvising that I absorbed. In 1995 I began my residency with the Jazz Composers Collective and that opened up a lot of new doors. I got away from the mainstream and started listening to artists that opened up my imagination: Paul Bley, Old and New Dreams, Herbie Nichols, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Yusef Lateef, Sun Ra and Roland Kirk. And I started listening to a lot more music from Asia, Africa, Jamaica and Brazil.

TR: This sextet is a bit unusual in combining piano/keyboards and marimba/percussion, which gave you some different options for colors, and also gave Chris Gestrin and Sal Ferreras the opportunity for some interesting written out and improvised interplay. Your writing here actually covers a lot of ground, including funk, African and contemporary classical influences. Could you comment on how your composing for larger groups (you also have an 11-piece ensemble in New York) has developed? What sparks a new composition – is it particular combinations of musicians to write for, or ideas for structures, or an expressive urge that starts with feelings or scraps of melodies, or ?

MB: I usually start by writing for the personalities I have at my disposal and then move parts around accordingly. If something doesn’t fit well on a specific instrument, it probably never will. Sometimes the players do better with less information, so I’ll leave it up to them to come up with a part. Small groups can function very well in a spontaneous environment but once you get larger than a quintet it is more difficult to be loose, creative and still musical. I can cite one very inspired and popular album from the late 60s where the arrangers left a lot up to the players. At the time these were some of the best musicians in the world and they made a historical album together. A few years ago when they tried to recreate the spirit of that music with a new band they weren’t loose “together.” The resulting criticism irritated the baffled leaders. They exclaimed, “We write and arrange way better now and these players are the best soloists around!” But something was missing. It’s really hard to present a tight and focused ensemble AND retain a loose vibe. I usually know what moment to let the players do their thing. I don’t have to write it all down, I just need to listen and cue the appropriate player at the right time. Some of the music in Amor de Cosmos is thoroughly scored, and other pieces are very open to interpretation. I like to strike a balance. Amor de Cosmos = Love of Order!

TR: Maybe you could go into more detail about how things worked with these players – given that there were only a couple of rehearsals/gigs and one day in the studio, there wasn’t a lot of time to work on things. How did this group take to your music? Of course in a sense this wasn’t a completely novel situation for most of them, given that they’ve been close musical collaborators (e.g. Andre and Dylan have been playing in Chris’ trio for probably 10 years now; Dylan and Brad also have a long history together, and are also members of Chris’s Stillpoint project along with Andre). The odd man out is Sal Ferreras, who isn’t really part of the jazz/improv scene in Vancouver, though he’s highly respected as a new music percussionist and is extremely knowledgeable about Latin music as well (he has a PhD in ethnomusicology from UBC).

MB: I got the idea to use Sal from you, Tony! I have to admit that in the Lounge Lizards John was writing for marimba and I really liked the sound of it. The first day, we all squished into Brad’s basement to rehearse so Sal had to bring his vibraphone rather than marimba. All of the music was new, even to me! It was a good meeting and the musicians learned the music very quickly. Once the first gig started we sounded strong and the guys were fearless. And the marimba sounded amazing! After a few very long days of preparing I knew it wouldn’t be the same in the studio. I expected this after a high energy gig. We weren’t as wild as in the club, but the focus, energy and musicianship came through. Aside from Sal the guys had spent a lot of time playing jazz together so there was a friendly familiarity with one another.

TR: One critic has suggested that your music is among that which is revitalizing the jazz mainstream. Mainstream, avant-garde, downtown, uptown are just rough categories of course and should not be thought of as mutually exclusive, but I’m curious how you see yourself as a jazz musician who is also interested in music from other cultures. And if you are bringing something different to jazz, what do you think it is?

MB: Well I think that “mainstream” is an antiquated term for jazz music these days. Musicians who play pure bebop stay true to that theory of music, applying the right rhythms and systems to make their ideas work in the context of that form. Most jazz musicians find an idiom that works for their own self-expression and exist in that realm throughout their career. But then I grew up around Miles. and he was always changing his environment and I latched on to that idea. I like a lot of music and why shouldn’t that come through? So in a way that’s my system! I love to improvise without any written music, but again it would become boring after a while. I’d miss playing a good standard, blues or through-composed piece. I’m very lucky to be surrounded my musician/composers who – no matter what the idiom – write very original and creative music. Now that I’ve lived around that music it’s hard not to see a lot of what is termed “mainstream jazz” as under imagined. The artists might play great solos but after a few tunes you hear the same rhythms and systems in play…over and over again. By changing the formulas in my compositions I get inspired to come up with new ideas as a soloist and arranger. I think it makes it harder for people to define my sound, but I have a lot of ideas and I don’t like to recycle – though I like a lot of composers who recycle and it does make their music very identifiable.

TR: I agree, mainstream is an old-fashioned word these days, but I guess it refers specifically to the Stanley Crouch/Wynton Marsalis definition of jazz. I think of what you and the band do as just “modern/creative jazz,” though stylistic categories aren’t really good for much since everyone seems to mean something different when they use them! In any case there’s something quite eclectic and non-trendy about your approach, and maybe as you’ve said that’s because you take your jazz history seriously (including the jazz avant-garde). What do you mean though by “changing the formulas” in your composing – something as simple as setting an unusual time signature for an African groove (11/8) in the A section “The Wash Away?” I’m also curious about the musical inspiration(s) for the more contemporary-classical leaning pieces such as “Paddy Pie Face” and “So Long Seymour” – and what your considerations were regarding the structure of those pieces – you leave quite a bit of room for individual or collective improvisation.

MB: Yes, by changing the formulas I mean challenging myself by trying new things out. I have never written so much music in odd meters (“Temporary Constellation,” “The Wash Away”). I didn’t use a lot of chord symbols – the harmonic language came out of the melodies. I knew that Songlines would embrace the originality I bring to my work and I didn’t want to waste this opportunity. “Paddy Pie Face” was inspired by a dream I had, and I wanted the melody to go on forever but it was too tiring to perform. The exceptions here are “Amor de Cosmos” and “The Infirmary” which are more typical of my writing style. When I work with a larger group I always record a live performance and then change the music so that it will make more sense as an album. This time we didn’t have that luxury, but I’m glad because the music didn’t get edited to death. These performances are very honest.

TR: How does this record fit into your current direction as a musician? Any thoughts about where you might take the group from here?

MB: I feel very satisfied that I wrote this music, some of which is very different from my previous work. There are a few challenging pieces and most of it was as new to me as to the sidemen. During the week we rehearsed, performed and recorded I was struggling with both physical problems (tendonitis) and emotional (my father’s failing health). But thanks to the combined efforts of the musicians I think we made fine album. I’d like to find performance opportunities – both inside and outside Canada – for the band and compose more music for these players.