The skilful and imaginative Canadian saxophonist and composer Michael Blake made himself something of an enigma to the straight-jazz crowd by devoting his early career to culture-hopping personal projects, and years with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, the cult band on the borders of avant-jazz, rock, film-noir music and minimalism. In the 1990s, Blake’s talents could have put him alongside his gifted peers in the international jazz polls, but while many focused on updates of classic jazz traditions, he didn’t, and still doesn’t. Now 59, he retains the inviting flair he has always had – for rich intricacy snaking through a folksy melodic openness, and spontaneous resources embracing swing, improv and the contemporary freebop of sax stars such as David Liebman (one of his first tutors), Joe Lovano and the late Michael Brecker.
On Dance of the Mystic Bliss – a dreamy title that slightly short-changes the joyous audacity of this music – Blake surrounds himself with a dynamic Brazilian trio comprising two percussionists and exciting guitarist Guilherme Monteiro, plus New York folk/psychedelia violinist Skye Steele (uncorking a storming free-barndance hoedown on the dirgily Ornettish Sagra here), cellist Christopher Hoffman and bassist Michael Bates.
The opening Merle the Pearl is a tumbling tenor sax vamp over a funky guitar hook that veers into a highlife vibe. Standout Little Demons – a ducking-and-diving tenor theme like a punchy Brecker lick, answered in short ripostes from the band – abruptly shifts into a John Scofield-like blues-chordal cruncher from Monteiro that makes you jump out of your skin. On three delicately devious reveries, Blake’s slow-burn imagination blossoms: the closing Weeds – moving from a snarling guitar break to a twilit film-noir sleepwalk that borders on Ellingtonesque – is a characteristically captivating snapshot of a unique artist’s long-caressed sonic palette.
Also out this week
Guitar legend Pat Metheny revisits his low-lit solo-guitar classics such as 2003’s One Quiet Night and 2011’s What’s It All About with Dream Box (BMG). The wistful, softly insistent From the Mountains and Ole & Gard are never far from orthodox song-shapes, maybe a little soft-centred for contemporary audiences, but executed with a quiet passion.
Rising British guitarist Tom Ollendorff, a player of comparably meticulous eloquence, expands his earlier trio repertoire with the help of New York saxophonist Ben Wendel on Open House (Fresh Sound New Talent).
Fine UK global-jazz pianist/composer Zoe Rahman’s expanded band (including trumpeter Byron Wallen and trombonist Rosie Turton) exhibits comparable aplomb on Colour of Sound (Manushi Records), while Snarky Puppy helmsman Michael League and his multinational Bokanté band vividly splice music from Africa, the US, the Caribbean and the Middle East with the insinuatingly political but imaginatively unshackled History (Real World Records).