Michael Blake Trio: Right Before Your Very Eyes

Saxophonist Michael Blake is one of those skilled and versatile jazz musicians comfortable in a variety of settings. These two releases highlight his range: Right Before Your Very Ears is a sax-bass-drums trio that emphasizes facets of swing and ensemble interaction; Blake Tartare is a more groove-oriented effort.

Blake’s trio with long-time collaborators bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard flirts with freedom without actually consummating the relationship. All are superb craftsmen–thoughtful and precise, they take care to shape each gesture before sending it off into the world on its own. Allison and Ballard don’t burn, but they cook. Blake is a heady player on tenor and soprano, and a talented composer. His attractive tunes give the music a rather traditional harmonic foundation, which the musicians pull and stretch but never tear apart. On the one hand, their loose adherence to form and/or structure lends the music coherence. On the other, the performances don’t convey a great deal of tension or passion.

Blake Tartare is a different animal, stylistically, and a more successful album. Blake is joined by a tasty Danish rhythm section featuring an electric piano and, on one track, guitar. The group plays in various rock and jazz bags, sometimes on the same tune: “Messy Business” goes from an ethereal, “In a Silent Way”-type fusion to James Brown-ish funk and back in the span of its 10-plus minutes. Whereas Blake seems a bit reserved on the trio album, here he comes off relaxed and inspired, more inclined to cut loose–especially on the backbeat-oriented numbers, which seem to better suit his manner of phrasing. Blake is the principal soloist, though guitarist Teddy Kumpel kicks in some quirky spots on a couple of tracks.