“Blake gets incredible range from his band here…beautiful stuff for our ears…[not] any less great than Joshua Redman or Banford Marsalis or even Sonny Rollins.”
– Will Layman, PopMatters, reviewing In the Grand Scheme of Things
Over the last 9 years, New York saxophonist Michael Blake has been periodically returning to Vancouver, which he left in 1986, to create and record new works with his pick of Vancouver improvisers. Amor de Cosmos (2007), a sextet somewhat inspired by his BC roots, featured Chris Gestrin, Dylan van der Schyff and André Lachance. In the Grand Scheme of Things (2012) was by his Variety Hour quartet (Gestrin, van der Schyff and JP Carter). This new release, his most ambitious in terms of writing and arranging, adds cello and guitar plus guest instrumentalists and, on two pieces, Michael’s own lyrics. It is also his most conceptual work since his debut as leader, Kingdom of Champa (1997), his jazz portrait of Vietnam. This time the connection is, more indirectly, with India. Originally titled The Komagata Maru Blues, this suite of music was inspired by a tragic immigration incident in Vancouver in 1914, when a Japanese freighter carrying several hundred East Indian immigrants (almost all Sikh) was turned away using exclusionist, racists laws. Michael has a family connection to this history through his great grand uncle H.H. Stevens, a Conservative Member of Parliament who declared at a public meeting, “I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one great principle – of a white country and a white British Columbia.”
Blake never knew Stevens, and grew up in a progressive environment. But the connection catalyzed a creative process, one which was also affected by the Syrian war: “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….The biggest departure for me was writing lyrics. 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 Gurdit Singh’ captures that moment in Vancouver harbor when the passengers are not welcomed with open arms.”
The suite begins with a major blues and closes with a minor one: “ ‘The Soldier and the Saint’ sounds a lot like Oliver Nelson, like something off of Blues and the Abstract Truth. He’s a big influence along with Ellington/Strayhorn, Mingus and Henry Threadgill. The second half works around a different form with that rising type of movement that I think is exuberant and life affirming. I changed the blues form for both solos on ‘Sea Shanty’ so it’s not repetitive. The horns and drums 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. 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’. ‘Battle at Baj Baj’ has a 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. ‘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. 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 [on which Chris and André also play] is sublime.”
“I hope listeners are moved emotionally by the subliminal message of how important it is that we as a society must listen to each other. 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.”
Lee Hutzulak’s making-of video is here.
This recording was made possible through the assistance of the Music Section of the Canada Council for the Arts.