This interview with Michael Blake was conducted by email during January 2016.
Tony Reif: In the liner notes you talk about the original impetus for creating this suite as a piece of family history that links you directly to the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 through your relative H.H. Stevens, then a 36 year old Conservative Member of Parliament. According to Wikipedia, “Stevens was an opponent of Asian immigration saying, in 1914, ‘We cannot hope to preserve the national type if we allow Asiatics to enter Canada in any numbers.’…[He] organized a public meeting against allowing the ship’s passengers to disembark and urged the government to refuse to allow the ship to remain. Stevens worked with immigration official Malcolm R. J. Reid to keep the passengers off shore. It was Reid’s intransigence, supported by Stevens, that led to mistreatment of the passengers on the ship and to prolonging its departure date…” Stevens died in 1973. Did you know him? And I’m curious how you learned about his involvement, also whether he came to regret his racist actions later in life.
Michael Blake: No I didn’t know him. I first read about him in my grandparents’ scrapbook when I was a kid. Actually my first impressions of HH were that he was the man responsible for building the Stanly Park sea wall. This is true, and ironically it is something that unites us as a city. He initiated this plan soon after the KM incident – I think around 1917? – but it wasn’t completed for many decades. The Vancouver newspapers would snap pictures of him walking his dog around the wall. He seemed quite proud of that accomplishment, and when he came up my family only mentioned that particular achievement to me.
TR: You talk about the suite as an offer of atonement and as fulfilling a desire to resolve your family’s involvement in the Komagata Maru tragedy.
MB: Oh I don’t feel my family (this would be my on my mother’s side) needs to resolve anything. Both of my grandparents were incredibly open minded and embraced all people. I was brought up for some years with my grandparents and they always expressed a very progressive attitude towards other cultures. Of course with the usual dash of off-color humor or whatever, but that was common for that generation. My grandfather loved Nat Cole and Louis Armstrong. There was never any mention of discrimination in our household. Maybe that’s why the KM was not discussed? I think that Canada a hundred years ago was rife with expansionists and racism. Today Canadians are quick to point at Americans because of slavery, but at the door of racism is a rhetoric that divides us. Look at Trump right now…he’s doing the same thing by suggesting that we stop allowing Muslims to enter the US ‘until we figure things out’. I mean that is some scary shit and sounds exactly like something HH said 102 years ago about Asians. What is truly absurd is that Americans are buying it.
What I love about our countries is that you can become part of a democracy and open society without denying your heritage, but at the same time, generation after generation we adapt, and young people are the first to bring this about. Just look at Latin culture in America. It was only 50 years ago, in the early 60s, that Leonard Bernstein was getting us to understand what a hemiola was by composing ‘I Want to Live in America’. I think he was hipping white America to something new that they should embrace and feel proud of. Thus the Puerto Ricans also felt respected for contributing something new to American culture. I got into jazz through Latin music and I guess some of that comes through in this music as well. You can really hear it on “Perimeters”.
TR: Could you give us some insight into how you went about conceptualizing the suite, as you composed it, in relation to the current and ongoing social themes of “immigration, tolerance, acceptance and assimilation” – issues so in the headlines these days through the Syrian refugee crisis in particular. Did you have something like a program in mind, with different pieces coming to represent for you creative expressions of (or responses to) certain aspects of these social issues? Or was it a more intuitive/emotional process? And at what point did you decide to write lyrics for two of the pieces, as a way of more directly addressing these ideas?
MB: Well the whole story about the KM is so tragic, and I knew it would require a careful application of musical devices to reflect that event. I didn’t want the center of the work to be about the failure of it all, rather I wanted to tell the story from several different perspectives and show how far we’ve come. But then the current refugee crisis came into play and that definitely sank into my conscience while I was writing the music. My interpretation is personal, having family ties to HH, but to someone else a song like “Battle at Baj Baj” will probably mean something completely different, right? Most people have never heard of the KM and probably never will. So I think the lyrics broaden the scope of the music into what listeners can imagine for themselves. For me “The Ballad of Gurtdit Singh” captures that moment in Vancouver harbor when the passengers are not welcomed with open arms. I really empathize with anyone who has the desire and will to cast fate to the wind and leave their homeland, especially when you have no idea what awaits you. But people are forced into this sometimes, and anything is better than where they are. That is what is so sad about Syria. It is a deeply upsetting and difficult situation but people have to look into their hearts and do the right thing, for these people are refugees, not immigrants. But so often they don’t, and sometimes people don’t assimilate, and that causes a lot of resentment among some locals. This music is about that dichotomy: between people who are new to a place, have strange ways, and the people who are used to a way of life and have to accept them, regardless of how different they may seem. I only had to move from Vancouver to New York and I’m a white male who speaks English, but I was really shocked when I arrived in NYC in 1986. At that time it was like Mars compared to Vancouver. But I had to assimilate and learn how to get along as a New Yorker, and eventually I did and before long I thought it was the greatest city in the world.
TR: The suite opens with a major blues and closes with a minor one (“The Soldier and the Saint”, which for me sounds like a reflective celebration of the classic jazz tradition as exemplified for example by Blue Note in the late 50s). The history of jazz is of course also part of the history of black culture in America, and much of the free jazz that followed in the 60s claimed a radical relevance to the civil rights and black power struggles of that time. Those jazz revolutions of the 60s (and early 70s) transcended time and place to become part of jazz around the world, and they remain a huge influence on many of the younger players who came to prominence in the 90s and 00s. Could you give us some idea of how your compositions here draw inspiration from that expanded jazz tradition (a tradition that also includes, through Coltrane and others, an interest in the classical music of India, which I hear for example in your solo in “ Exaltation”) but that maybe take it in some other directions than you’ve done in the past? Were you working in some pieces with the idea of raga-like jazz expression as you composed them, or is that something that developed more in the process of arranging and rehearsing the suite? And are there other world musics that have made their way somehow into this suite, as part of a program of “accepting and assimilating” musical ideas from other places? Were there any jazz composer/arrangers that you drew inspiration from? And how about from 20th century classical music?
MB: “The Soldier and the Saint” sounds a lot like Oliver Nelson, like something off of Blues and the Abstract Truth. I’m an arranger, and he’s a big influence along with Ellington/Strayhorn, Mingus and Henry Threadgill. So that 60s sound is heavy-handed but hey, it’s a minor blues and that’s the vibe. It develops into something different, and the second half works around a different form with that rising type of movement that I think is exuberant and life affirming. Kind of similar to the end of Kingdom of Champa’s “Hue is Hue”? Here, though, I’m using more of a classic jazz arranging technique of layering melodies and themes, one after another – an approach that also comes into play on “Perimeters” and “Departures”. Some of these influences are more common in ‘pop’ music arrangements; “Sea Shanty” and “The Ballad of Gurdit Singh” are pretty ‘inside’. The harmonies are defined and the melodies are based on modes that work with those harmonies. But I changed the blues form for both solos on “Sea Shanty” so it’s not repetitive, and Chris really takes it out sometimes, which is beautiful.
I definitely have tapped into other styles of music although I try to use those influences in a way that the music becomes my own. On “Sea Shanty” the horns play a little ska figure on the bridge. The vocal has an almost Arabic kind of phrasing to it. I will admit that that opening lyric and blend was heavily influenced by Ornette Coleman’s opening track on Science Fiction. But Emma’s voice is so young and optimistic and clear that it led to a very different result. And I tried to get the rhythm section to play with that free undulating pulse under the melody like on “What Reason Would I Give” but they followed the score and were lining up the bar lines so perfectly with the melody that it sounds completely different. I kept pushing Dylan to play harder and then he sort of went crazy on it. He just wanted to put his own stamp on it and I wasn’t about to belabor him about the drum part. Well maybe I did! Hahaha! If I had written it out then I could be a stickler, but I didn’t, so it took a minute to get that right. However on “Ballad of Gurdit Singh” I wrote out every drum pattern until the tenor solo and he played it exactly as written.
Because I’m mostly self-taught, I don’t have an academic’s vocabulary in terms of discussing contemporary classical music. That style has been incorporated into film scores and I like film so no doubt I’ve gotten my fair share of Stravinsky or Schoenberg rip offs through that form. Recently when watching The Shining I was really struck by how incredible the music is in that film, and it’s loud and intense. Like Bernard Hermann’s work in Hitchcock’s Psycho the music that Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkins composed is part of the overall structure and essential to the tension of every scene. A lot of that music has sunk into my head – Rota, Morricone, etc…I like electronic music too but I’m not very qualified to discuss that either. I think that’s why I can’t get enough of Chris Gestrin on Moog! I got into jazz through Latin music and some of that comes through in this music as well. You can really hear it on “Perimeters”.
TR: The core group here is your Variety Hour quartet of J.P. Carter, Chris Gestrin and Dylan van der Schyff. How did you decide what instruments and musicians you wanted to use to expand the music to a septet plus guests?
MB: I think Dylan, Chris and I have always had a great connection, going back to Amor de Cosmos. Chris is a superb improviser and I was thrilled at how much he pushed himself on this session. I appreciate your input in helping me find new players to collaborate with, and JP was a great choice for The Variety Hour. He’s really got something special going on and he uses electronics with great command. I knew I wanted to add a vocalist but I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of style. Emma also came at your recommendation and I think she really brought a beautiful clarity to the music. On these pieces her voice is forced to sit a little above her comfort zone in terms of range but she’s so musical and brought an innocence to the lyrics that I really like. I think that was the biggest departure for me, writing lyrics. I am very proud of the lyrics for “Ballad of Gurdit Singh” but I was a little rushed on “Sea Shanty”. I could have had Emma sing phonically but I decided to just throw caution to the winds and use the lyrics. They’re rather subliminal anyway since they’re surrounded by horns and cello. Peggy Lee is simply one of the best improvisers around, period. Her tone is exceptional and her ears are super sharp. She also has amazing time so the music doesn’t get muddy. Sometimes with strings and the bowing action involved, they can sort of drag a bit behind the other instruments but Peggy plays on top and can single-handedly push things along. André is also a brilliant ensemble player and soloist. We go back to the early 90s when I started coming back home for the occasional gig. Their arco duet on “Arrivals” is incredible and perhaps my favorite moment on the album. Neelamjit and I learned of each other after he and Dylan discovered that we were both working on KM projects. Neel’s own work about the Komagata Maru is sublime. I enjoyed having him sit in with us at the premiere of this music and I was honored he agreed to play on the recording. Aram came about through word of mouth. I should have known him from NYC but I’m not really in the same scene as him. He works a lot with John Zorn. It was lucky that he and his family were in Vancouver for a spell and he was the perfect guy for this. I can’t wait to perform again with him. Ron Samworth and I go back the farthest, we met in college although we didn’t play that much together until quite recently. His fiery solo closes the album and it’s a tour de force of modern jazz guitar.
TR: Did the arrangements change much as your rehearsed them with the musicians and they brought their own ideas to the music? For example, Chris’s long, joyous, pan-stylistic solo in “Departures” that references Cecil Taylor among others. Are there any other contributions that you’d like to highlight for us?
MB: I received a commissioning grant to compose the work for the centennial of the Komagata Maru incident in 2014. The music grew over a year of preparation and rehearsal leading up to the premiere at the 2014 Vancouver jazz festival. “Perimeters” and “The Ballad of Gurdit Singh” were the first tunes that came together and they stayed the same. “Sea Shanty” went through several phases, starting out free and loose, and eventually the groove came in and stuck. Once I was up against a deadline I fleshed out the rest: “Battle at Baj Baj” was written as a lead sheet, and I had a coda on that but it didn’t make sense and took away from the heart-wrenching theme, definitely inspired by Coltrane’s “Alabama”. On “Arrivals” I wanted to create an extreme contrast between the horns/gongs playing against the string duets. I thought of the horns as characters from the KM, the passengers discussing their dilemma and getting emotional and worked up as a group. The strings are like an opposing group that want to calm things down. There’s a lot of the blues in these pieces as well. “Departures” has a long bluesy line as a background to Chris’s solo. That melodic line allows him to push harder away from the chord changes (a repetitive loop with tricky harmonic movement) and I think this technique is very similar to Charles Mingus’s music. Especially towards the end when he brings it back into a swinging backbeat! That was all collaborative. “Exaltation” was devised as a loose, open-ended jam with the pedal points shifting in several sections. There’s an opening section for tabla and soprano sax to dialogue then a shift into the guitar solo and a final section to allow some release from all the built-up tension. I had written “The Soldier and the Saint” some years ago but never recorded it and I adapted it to this orchestration.
All of the arrangements were designed by me, and the musicians stayed true to the scores, but they open up into interpretive solo sections. Of course the improvisations are all very personal and the musicians are composing in real time within the framework of the compositions. I just arranged for them to play in various environments, sometimes blowing over the rhythm section (like in traditional modern jazz) but at other moments pairing them off into small groups so they’re improvising in pairs, trios, etc.
TR: Is there anything specific that you would be pleased to have listeners come away from these performances thinking or feeling, about music or about how we can all get along?
MB: I hope they’re moved emotionally by the subliminal message of how important it is that we as a society must listen to each other. Musicians (particularly improvisers) are supposed to listen to one another. Even in intense and dense situations the best music is the result of skill and empathy so that everyone is involved in the process of creating something coherent. It’s really reflective of the democratic process.
I think the arrangements and sounds on this album are captured beautifully by John Raham. We recorded in a somewhat legendary room (formerly Mushroom Studios where some famous rock sessions were made) and I’d like to think some of that vibe may have rubbed off in this session. Because of everyone’s contributions we created a unique ensemble sound. It might provoke the listener to think without feeling detached from the enjoyment of listening to the music. But listening is a subjective experience and I’m quite certain every person will respond in their own personal way to this album.