An Interview

Michael Blake (II)

This interview with Michael Blake was conducted by email during July 2012.

Tony Reif: What prompted you to put together a new quartet in Vancouver, and how did you decide who would be in the band – in particular JP Carter, who I think you hadn’t performed with before (but of course Chris and Dylan had)? You’ve led plenty of groups in your career – how would you characterize this one compared with your current NY quartet for example, or other recent groups?

Michael Blake: I really enjoyed playing with the Amor de Cosmos sextet so I asked Dylan and Chris to join me again for this group. Chris suggested I try it with him on Moog. JP and I met at a gig quite a while back. I don’t think there was much jazz happening, more abstract improvs, and I thought he was different. I liked that but I didn’t fully understand his style until I started this project. No doubt having a double life between Brooklyn and Vancouver was my impetus for creating this band. It’s paid off because we have been able to play quite frequently, developing a repertoire of my compositions and dialing in to each other’s sensibilities. I think the music I brought in leaves room for each guy to be himself. I didn’t set out to create a Canadian sound – it just happened! After leading a Danish band and engaging with the Scandinavian sound I felt elated that my music still continues to thrive in environments outside of NYC. I feel very comfortable with these particular musicians. It’s in the way they leave space, suggest motives with the simplest of gestures and listen to each other. I feel at home and I’m embracing that.

TR: In this group Chris is actually playing Rhodes and Moog bass simultaneously – what does that bring to the music that an acoustic bassist wouldn’t have done as well or better? Was keeping the size of the group to a quartet for touring purposes a consideration?

MB: Chris is very talented and not only played both keyboards, he engineered the session at the same time! I’m lucky to find musicians in places like Copenhagen, Vancouver, Italy, etc. who complement my music. I get to work with some of the most creative and inspiring players on this planet. Chris is without a doubt a world-class artist and his Moog playing on IGST is exemplary. His independence on both keyboards is obvious, but how he engages both instruments in conversation is really amazing. He really makes it sound like we have another person playing bass. I don’t miss the traditional upright bass because he has such a great feel and is tasteful.

TR: The music is a mix of newly composed pieces (most of them I think) and a couple of tunes that you’ve performed with other groups, right? When you were composing, did you have a particular sound, stylistic approach, or expressive palette in mind, or did all that really develop out of what these performers brought to the compositions?

MB: After our first shows I began to write tunes that I thought would work well with the Moog. “The Variety Hour” is a good example of that. Dylan came up with the groove for “Road to Lusaka”. There are many examples of this open-ended style of arranging because I want the band to participate in the construction of the pieces. That’s why we sound like a band! I admire control freak composers for notating every detail of their tunes but I think it’s a drag as a sideman when something gets played the same way every night. I admired and studied how Miles Davis did it, especially after his music got more freeform. I prefer to let things flow and a lot of notation can hinder that.

TR: There’s a kind of expansive, ‘cinematic’ quality to a lot of this music, by which I mean not that it sounds like film music particularly (though you have composed for film) but that it can evoke moods and images in listeners that seem to relate to narrative somehow. I know that story writing and film are both creative disciplines that interest you (and “The Searchers” obviously is referring to John Ford’s film). And you’ve been involved in bands before, Slow Poke for example, that to some extent share this atmospheric, cinematic feeling. Is it something you go for intentionally, and if so, what is it about this music that relates it to storytelling? It’s more than being slow, moody, and ambient/spacey at times, right? There’s a kind of dark, slow-burn intensity that’s part of it too, I think, that pulls listeners along yet gives their imaginations space to free-associate? And how as a group of improvisers do you get to that place of sensitive interaction where this feeling can emerge?

MB: Well, I am glad that music as subtle as mine has a place in today’s gadget absorbed world. I think a tune like “The Variety Hour” is a comment on the early stages of this technological revolution, before
Microsoft and Apple. I grew up with Pong and I can’t believe what has happened in only 40 years. Sometimes I write at the computer but all of this music was composed on the piano, and because I’m limited technically it isn’t pyrotechnic. The spaciousness and storytelling aspects have as much to do with what we were talking about before – how well the musicians transform the notation into their own        orchestrations – as they do with my demands as a composer and leader.

As far as textures go, I am obsessed with how a chord progression changes the way a melody feels to the listener. For example on “Willie” I wrote mostly major and minor triads but the mood of the tune changes in relationship to what melody note is played within each chord. Simply inverting a chord from major to minor can alter the color enough to satisfy my need for substance. Also, voice leading in a way so that one or two notes sustain while the root tonality is altered really appeals to me. This is a very common tool in many film scores. I am seeking an emotional response that is very intentional and quite manipulative too. Another example of that in “Willie” is at the end of the melody: I asked Chris to repeat the last three chords and it creates a sort of melancholia that wouldn’t work earlier on in the piece. But after the free-spirited tenor solo we need to reset the mood and retain some of that feeling we got earlier on. Willie is a lonely cowboy, after all. I try to compose ideas that contain fragments of things that we can all relate to – like memories, predictions and whatever is happening in the moment. In my teens I was a bicycle racer and I remember that when I won there really was a sense of accomplishment and pride. Folks cheered for me and my Dad would yell, “That’s my boy!” But when I lost – which was most of the time – I just felt empty and it was so quiet. Awkward experiences, real-life challenges (failures and successes) are worth communicating about, and it’s possible with instrumental music to imply images and feelings that are inside us. No words are required, and every listener can still follow a dialogue that is being expressed through melodic, thematic and lyrical improvisation. Some of my favorite music is the collaborations between Gil Evans and Miles Davis. They are so beautifully done that it’s hard to tell what’s composed and what’s improvised.

TR: We talked about ways of publicizing this group and the record, and these days people like watching videos. Documents of gigs are standard for jazz, but you have some ideas for music videos for one or more pieces on the record – which fits in with this discussion of cinematic music? Any specific thoughts on which piece(s) and what kind of visual treatment you’re thinking about?

MB: Yes! I really want to collaborate with a filmmaker and/or animator using some music from “The Variety Hour”. I think the visual image is important in order to draw people in and widen interest in this music. My reservation about YouTube is that artists’ rights are being violated. It is mandatory that if an artist doesn’t wish to give his property away for free than he has every right to distribute it in a manner that he/she prefers. I know this kind of empathetic, ethical reasoning is in direct conflict with the idea of a free culture, but that’s too bad kids – if you like it, then you should pay for it. I would like to see movies for free but I am okay paying to watch a film. Music isn’t nearly as expensive to produce as a film, so when someone downloads a track or shares files it’s easier to swallow the guilt of not buying it form the source.

TR: There’s one cover on the record, the Otis Redding song “Treat Her Right”. Can you talk about how classic black music, from country/electric blues to swing, R&B, gospel and soul, has influenced you? Same question re your own tune “Big Smile” and bebop.

MB: Yes, I am influenced by a lot of music and I love to play classics. It’s perhaps a generational thing I picked up from friends in NYC. Long before The Bad Plus came along Steven Bernstein’s band Sex Mob led the way covering pop and rock tunes. My friend guitarist David Tronzo heard me playing like King Curtis and we started a band (Slow Poke) that played mostly covers. I learned a lot about playing  melodies from these guys. It’s almost a lost art, and many of us feel committed to carrying on this tradition that stems from Ellington and early jazz. My inspiration on “Treat Her Right” was to phrase like Otis with the hefty warm tone of the great tenorman Gene Ammons. In my opinion there’s a good way to play blues and soul on the sax…and it’s hard! Most players (myself included) get so wrapped up in pyrotechnics and mimicking iconic players that they forget how to play the melody. And it’s crazy how most jazz soloists don’t use the melody in their improvs. They play a tune and then start going for other stuff and the melody is lost. I do it too, but when I choose a song I want to be true to that song and its history. Take for example a song like “I Will always Love You”. It was composed and sung by Dolly Parton as a heartbreaking lament. Her chorus is so understated and sad. Whitney Houston’s version is the one everyone thinks of but in my opinion it pales in comparison. However, that is THE famous version of the song so if you are going to cover that tune (which I have no plans of doing… hahah!), you better choose right.

TR: The suite “In the Grand Scheme of Things” has three sections (originally four). Bands that are working somewhere in the overlap between mainstream and avant-garde often, in performance, create long pieces consisting of two or three compositions linked loosely by freer sections – but when it comes to recording they usually break them up again into the individual compositions, I guess so as not to have something that might seem too long without the setting and concentration of a live performance to sustain its length. You’ve always performed these pieces as a suite though, I think, and they were recorded in a single take for the record. Were they originally conceived that way, or did you just try it out that way with the group and liked the result? Anything else you want to say about the suite?

MB: The suite was actually written for a jazz trio with Hamid Drake on drums and Ben Allison on bass. It was originally meant to come across like Sonny Rollin’s’ “Freedom Suite”. However, unlike his piece and Ellington’s suites, the sections are tied together by improvs. In this version we have the same principles at work but the addition of a harmonic instrument and electronics really changes the climate of each section. I through-composed this at the piano and it was written in an afternoon.