When I first played with Johnathan Blake in 1997, I had already heard that the great Philadelphia-based violinist John Blake, Jr., of whom I’d already been an admirer for years, had a hot-shot son who played drums. I first heard about him from the pianist Orrin Evans and then more buzz started to develop. Indeed, the reports were true – he was very young and played his butt off. What I hadn’t yet heard, which is now common knowledge, is that he is also kind, humble and thoroughly devoid of diva behavior. This makes him a pretty perfect foil for my mentor, Kenny Barron, whose trio is one of a number of current groups (including the Three Cohens and the groups of Tom Harrell, Ravi Coltrane and Lonnie Smith) in which JB is the first call drummer. In a music business so full of inequity, it is wonderful when a ubiquitous player is quite legitimately a great musician and person and I’m certainly grateful to have him as a charter member of the Jazz Samaritan Alliance.
As Resonant Motion prepares to invite Johnathan in this week for the second installment of this year’s Jazz Up Close series, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite moments in his discography, which is already substantial for someone who’s still pretty young. Through that reflection, I’ve found myself digging back into the recordings of his father, who tragically left this realm last year and whose deep legacy needs to be remembered.
So there are two different lists here, but it seemed more appropriate to present them in one post. And if you want to start off with one track to cover both of them, I suggest the transcendently soulful quartet track “A City Called Heaven” from the elder Blake’s Motherless Child album from 2009, and also featuring the great pianist Sumi Tonooka (a teacher of mine as well).
Top 10 Favorite John Blake, Jr. Tracks
1 ) “Horizon” from Horizon by McCoy Tyner (1979)
I could realistically do a whole list of highlights from John Blake’s time in the frontline of McCoy Tyner’s phenomenal turn-of-the-decade group. The capacity to be soulful yet modern that is central to Blake’s style served him very well on this deep music.
2 ) “Motherless Child” from Motherless Child (2009)
This gorgeous performance is from the same album cited above, but with the addition of the Howard University Jazz Choir (who grace most of the album, in the spirit of great 1960s progressive jazz plus choir recordings by Max Roach and Duke Pearson) and Mulgrew Miller sitting in on piano.
3 ) “Suite for Albeniz” from A Tear and A Smile by Catalyst (1975) (reissued on Complete Recordings, Vol. 2)
Perhaps no group under the broad umbrella of jazz screams “Philly” as much as the unjustly obscure proto-fusion/R&B/jazz group Catalyst. It’s appropriate, then, that on this track, John Blake sits in, both offering layers of violin and then a burning solo.
4 ) “Serengetti Dance” from A New Beginning (1988)
This energetic, diverse live album was recorded live at the Village Gate and is well worth seeking out. This funky track is buoyed by the bass work of Gerald Veasley.
5 ) “Fleurette Africaine” from The African Flower by James Newton (1985)
Speaking of inexplicably out of print records, this is a highlight of the 1980s in general. Flutist Newton offers one of the best versions of the classic Ellington tune that I’ve ever heard, supported by Blake, bassist Rick Rozie, drummer Billy Hart and my friend and colleague Jay Hoggard on vibes.
6 ) “Tell Me About It Now” from Paradise by Grover Washington, Jr. (1979)
Speaking of Philly stalwarts, Blake’s violin graces multiple albums by the lauded saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., who is well-known, but (not unlike Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles) was more versatile than many realized.
7 ) “Soprano Song” from Colors In Thirty Third by Muhal Richard Abrams (1986)
Once again, Blake’s versatility serves him well here on Muhal’s progressive but not all-the-way-out music. The interplay between drummer Andrew Cyrille and Blake on this track is to me the highlight of the whole record.
8 ) “Sookie Sookie” from Sparks by Charlie Apicella (2009)
One of Blake’s last commercially released recordings was his guest turn on this classic-sounding boogaloo by guitarist Apicella.
9 ) “Ginseng People” from Right There by Steve Turre (1991)
This wonderful straight-ahead track features the delightful texture of Turre’s trombone blending with Akua Dixon’s cello and the violin of Blake, who also takes an authoritative solo, buoyed by the swinging work of Benny Green, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.
10 ) “Last Tango in Paris” from Fuego by Mongo Santamaria (1972)
This short, funky track document’s Blake’s early career, which also included some landmark sessions with Archie Shepp. This performance climaxes with wailing electric violin, sharing a solo with the tenor saxophone of Justo Almario.
Top 10 Johnathan Blake Tracks
1 ) “Freefall” from The Eleventh Hour (2010)
Johnathan’s first album as a leader deserved every bit of acclaim it got, and more. Aside from his predictably great drumming, it showcases his mature concept as a composer and bandleader. This wonderful modern-yet-soulful tune features authoritative solo work by Kevin Hays, Mark Turner and JB’s fellow Philadelphian and longtime musical cohort Jaleel Shaw.
2 ) “For the Love of You” from Live at Jazz Standard Volume 2 by Russell Malone (2006)
The tradition of taking pop and R&B tunes and turning them into bouncy swing tunes is alive and well, and guitarist Malone’s wonderful take on the Isley Brothers classic rides on the coattails of Blake’s super-swinging groove and expert dynamic contrasts.
3 ) “Born Yesterday” from Gone But Not Forgotten (2014)
Johnathan’s most recent album is a tribute to many people who have passed on. In most cases those feted are important musicians, but this original tune from JB’s pen pays tribute instead to a sweet little girl, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene. The gorgeous, solemn song is rendered with great sensitivity by his pianoless quartet featuring Ben Street on bass, Mark Turner on soprano and Chris Potter on tenor.
4 ) “Dream Text” from The Time of the Sun by Tom Harrell (2010)
As it turns out, JB shares multiple bandstands with my old pal and high school classmate Wayne Escoffery, none more vaunted than that of Tom Harrell, one of my musical heroes. This slyly funky tune features both of them within the rock-solid quintet.
5 ) “Like Joe” from Force of Four by Joe Locke (2008)
These days the modern-yet-soulful torch is carried capably by a number of jazz artists, none more authoritative than vibraphonist/composer Joe Locke. This quartet with Robert Rodriguez and Ricky Rodriguez embodies that balance and JB makes it all sound organic and natural.
6 ) “Music Is the Magic” (by Claudia Acuňa) from Home Gift of Music – Japan Earthquake & Tsunami Relief (compilation) (2011)
Johnathan is also part of a powerhouse couple, as his wife, Rio Sakairi, is the Artistic Director of the Jazz Gallery in New York, as well as a noteworthy poet. She also can add record producer to her resume as the visionary behind this wonderful benefit album. The whole record is great, though my favorite track is the wonderful Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuňa’s moody interpretation of an Abbey Lincoln composition, with an ethereal vibe aided by JB’s colorful percussion.
7 ) “Motivation” from Blood Pressure by George Colligan (2006)
One thing you can count on from the powerhouse pianist/composer George Colligan is high energy, and it is incumbent on a drummer in that setting to be able to bring it, while also navigating the challenging twists one inevitably finds in George’s tunes. It is not surprising, then, that JB nails it here.
8 ) “I Want to Walk With Jesus” from Makin’ It by Oliver Lake Organ Trio (2006)
The long, rubato intro suggests that as soulful as it is, maybe this won’t be a song that features much drums . . . but eventually they get into the hard-swinging organ groove that is so central to jazz and more specifically to the legacy of Philadelphia.
9 ) “Muna’s Sleeping” from Changu by Jaleel Shaw (2007)
Here is Shaw again, along with pianist Robert Glasper and bassist Joe Martin. As facile as JB is on all kinds of high-energy music, his way with gentle songs is also remarkable, as evidenced by this song that one can presume was written for Johnathan and Rio’s adorable daughter.
10 ) “Haitian Fight Song” from Blues and Politics by the Mingus Big Band (1999)
The oldest track on this list, I actually wound up listening to this one a lot recently as this is a chart we did as I filled in for the semester directing the Wesleyan University Jazz Orchestra. It was a treat to be able to tell the students that if they stuck around through exam week, they could hear and even meet the gentleman who played the drum solo toward the end.