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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: A Tale of Two (Too Unsung) Tenors

October brings two very different and very wonderful releases by tenor saxophonists in their 40s who are both extremely accomplished and too little known. Bill McHenry and Michael Blake are not anonymous to serious fans, but don’t hold your breath until they get signed to Blue Note.

This is common in jazz, a discipline in which the highest degree of creativity is often met with some indifference. Few jazz musicians become stars, and idiosyncratic playing isn’t the golden ticket. But it’s to be cherished, nonetheless. And McHenry’s La Peur du Vide and Blake’s In the Grand Scheme of Things are collections worth celebrating.
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Jazz middle age is a glorious time—a time when a player is rich with ideas and mature enough to know his or her real identity. McHenry and Blake are using the middle of their careers to make bracing personal statements that stake a claim to greatness. They are reminders to keep our ears open every day.

Bill McHenry and La Peur du Vide

McHenry was born in 1972 and moved to New York in 1992, where he got work with legends and contemporaries alike: Paul Motian, John O’Neill, and Guillermo Klein, but also Ben Monder and Reid Anderson. He was booked as a leader at the Village Vanguard in 2003, and he was recording for Fresh Sound even before that in 1998. Just making it as a jazz player in New York means you are cream of the crop, but it’s also scary how easy it has been not to single McHenry out of a scene rife with Chris Potter and Joe Lovano and James Carter, to name just a few.

But McHenry’s latest, La Peur du Vide seems likely to change all that. La Peur is a perfect balance of modern tradition and daring adventure—a live date from the Village Vanguard that features an ideally balanced quartet and showcases a tenor talent who fuses technique, tone, and captivating quirk.

Michael Blake and In the Grand Scheme of Things

Blake is a completely different player than McHenry, but he’s equally worth discovering. And the case that he should be “big” is even more compelling.

cover artBlake was born in Montreal in 1964 and ultimately grew up in Vancouver, where an eclectic jazz scene is beautifully entrenched. But he had made it to New York by the late ‘80s, where he started playing with John Lurie’s band The Lounge Lizards. And Blake’s sensibility fits that eclectic downtown vibe. His dozen recordings as a leader include electric guitar, contributions from jazz wildcard Steve Bernstein as well as the group known as the Jazz Composers Collective (such as bassist Ben Allison), and plenty of mad eclecticism. Blake’s first recording as a leader was produced by no less a figure than Teo Macero, Miles Davis’s famed producer—and Kingdom of Champa seemed like the first volley from a future jazz star, featuring Vietnamese-flavored themes composed by Blake for a mad ensemble of vibes, flute, slide trumpet, distorted guitar, tuba, and of course his own tenor saxophone, which can move from feathered breathiness to ripe pungency.

Photo from Michael Blake.net
Blake never became well known, but he never settled down, either. His latest, In the Grand Scheme of Things, is on the Vancouver-based Songlines Recordings, and it features a hometown band of Chris Gestrin on keyboards (including a brilliantly-played mini-Moog bass), Dylan van der Schyff on drums, and JP Carter on trumpet. Grand Scheme keeps the band small but its range very wide. “Road to Lusaka” starts things with an atmospheric nod to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, but there is also the swinging boppishness of “Cybermonk”, with its walking synth-bass line and long tenor solo that demonstrates how good Blake is at making himself at home in the jazz tradition, even if it is with a wink.

Read the entire column here: A Tale of Two (Too Unsung) Tenor

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