Melody in Mind: Drummer & Composer Johnathan Blake

On individualism, context and the lineage of his "Gone, But Not Forgotten"

Johnathan Blake image 0
Emra Islek

Johnathan Blake

A resolving chord rings along the walls of the Village Vanguard. One by one, the players leave the bandstand, vanishing into the crest of a standing ovation, but Johnathan Blake lingers on the floor. Before packing up his cymbals, he pauses. Closing his eyes, he lets the final phrases of the last set echo in his ears, and wonders whether the audience hears them, too. “My goal is to have people walk away singing what I play,” he says.

Sharply focused on melodic expression, drummer/composer Blake plays with an awareness of interactive lyricism. Collaborative comping and spatially sensitive solo construction have become the hallmark of his artistry. He credits his versatility-and penchant for creating melodies out of texture-to his apprenticeship upbringing in Philadelphia. “My father, John Blake Jr., was a violinist and my first teacher,” he says. “He taught me the concept of listening to the melody-being aware of the melody.”

“In order to listen, I really had to be aware of my dynamics. So at an early age, I figured out how to fit [within] a band-what my role was, and that really came to fruition when I started working in the Mingus Big Band. It was around ’97 or ’98 when I started with them. My role was not just of timekeeper; I also had the role of really pushing the band, but doing it without overpowering them.

For me, that was an amazing lesson-really learning how to have that quiet fire-quiet intensity, in a way. That’s when I realized, ‘This is the role. I can apply this to so many different things.’ When I started working in smaller configurations, I kept that idea in mind and it really helped me to grow and become the musician I am today.”

Understanding the power behind his dynamic choices has allowed Blake to develop his sound in a variety of situations. The MVP of this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, playing in three different ensembles over two days, he’s always listening, conscious of when to initiate and when to react. “It’s constantly moving,” he says. “It’s like a split second reaction; that’s how I see it.”

“That’s the beauty of it, how it can switch at the drop of a hat. Because of what we do, we’re used to thinking on our toes, being in that moment. I feel like there’s a thin line [between], ‘OK, now it’s time to bring it here,’ [and] ‘now it’s time to kind of settle in.’ That’s constantly going through my mind as I’m playing. Sometimes, if it’s my group, and I feel like the other musicians might be a little confused about where we are, I try to do certain things to initiate where we’re going so they can follow. The players I play with, they all think on their toes, spur of the moment. They might hear something that I play and react to it maybe in a rhythmic way, and vice versa. For me, that’s the beauty of it, that story that’s being told-you never know what’s going to happen next.”

As a leader, Blake seeks to create a collaborative atmosphere that serves whatever soundscape he envisions. His latest record, Gone, But Not Forgotten (Criss Cross Jazz, 2014), features Mark Turner, Chris Potter and Ben Street, players who match his sensitivity and spontaneity, and complement his textural melodicism. Blake’s decision to record without piano or guitar developed, in part, out of an appreciation for their musical sensibilities. “They breathe life into the music,” he says.

“Because you don’t have the piano or guitar filling up the space, what I look for are musicians who are going to be rhythmically active. I’m going to be a little more active than I would if there were a chordal instrument behind us, so I’m looking for musicians to react to that. With the last record, I feel like I got that right away from those great musicians, Ben Street, Mark Turner and Chris Potter. They caught the vibe right away. There was no hesitation. Even though there was a lot of openness because there were no chordal instruments, they were filling up [the sound] with so many ideas-there was constant conversation. It was a beautiful thing. They have a gift of taking what I’ve written on the page and making it their own, as if they wrote it. To me, that’s the sign of true genius musicians: those guys who can remain true to themselves and their sound on their instrument, but still make the music come to life.”

On composing:

“First off, I think about melodies. Even when I go out to hear music, I’m always looking for the melody. I always want to play with the melody in mind. Sometimes you have people who write, but they forget that detail about the melody. To me, that’s what makes the song. I’m always thinking about the melody, but at the same time I’m thinking about how I want to shape things, make it groove. You’re going to hear the melody and it’s going to feel good, but you’re going to know that it’s going to grow into something else. I like these stories that take you on a journey. You never know what’s going to happen, but you know at the end all is going to reveal itself. That’s what I go for; I’m going to give you a little bit at a time, but it’s going to feel good, and hopefully you’re going to enjoy it.”

On his expectations as a composer:

“I always feel like the music set before me, or the music I set before my sidemen, is a blueprint. I don’t want them to think, ‘It has to be this.’ I want them to view it as, ‘This is what it is, but we’re going to take it somewhere else.’ When you see the blueprints of a house, that’s not necessarily how that house is going to look; they’re going to do some things to it to make it pop, make it their own. That’s the same concept I go for when I approach those settings and I approach those musicians. I’m looking for their ideas that they’re going to bring to the table, and still remain true to themselves, and their unique voices. I could be playing something and all of a sudden I hear somebody doing something else and I think, ‘Oh man, I love that!’ So I react to that.”

On his association with Mark Turner:

“He’s such a gifted musician. When I put this group together, he was definitely a factor. I knew I wanted him in there because Mark, Ben and I had been playing trio together. I’ve always liked his approach to playing without chordal instruments, and I really had that sound in mind. I have always been blown away by his playing; I’d followed him with Kurt Rosenwinkel for a very long time, and when I started becoming active on the New York scene, we would see each other quite a bit, either at Smalls or various other places throughout the city. We always talked about trying to get together and playing. I think the first time we ever got together, in the early 2000s, was at a pianist’s house, Aaron Goldberg; he put together a session. We just played through different tunes, and I thought, ‘Man, this is a very unique individual.’ I’m always in awe of how much he’s grown as a musician, and I’d like to think I’ve done the same (laughs). He’s such a beautiful person, and he brings so much life to the music. He’s one of a kind.”

Perhaps more than any other attribute, Blake values an artist’s individualism. An important element in the conception of Gone, But Not Forgotten was the anticipated dynamic between Turner and Potter. “Because Mark has such an individual sound, I wanted someone like Chris who has his own distinct sound,” says Blake.

“Chris isn’t going to cater to how Mark plays. He’s not going to try to play like Mark and vice versa-Mark’s not going to try to sound like Chris. Sometimes when you get cats who play the same instrument, it’s easy for them to cater to how the other sounds, or try to change their own playing. But I wanted those guys to be true to themselves when they’re playing. For me, I felt like that’s what happened on the record. It was beautiful. Those guys are such unique individuals; they both can play one note, and you immediately know who they are.”

Surrounding himself with artists who possess uniquely compelling musicianship, Blake has developed his own distinct sound on the drums. His propensity to play with a relaxed quarter note, while maintaining an almost aerodynamic lift is a result of his years spent in Philadelphia, absorbing the musical tendencies of his peers and predecessors. “I guess that was in my ear when I started playing this music,” he says. “Some people equate it to the ‘Philly sound.’

“I don’t know what it is; it’s just the sound I grew up listening to. A lot of drummers from Philadelphia had that very relaxed thing, but also that hurrying to the next bar. Philly Joe Jones, Edgar Bateman, Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham. These are all guys who kind of had that feel, to me: very relaxed-you didn’t feel uptight, but you could tell there was a forward motion that was like, ‘OK we’re going somewhere else.’ I kind of adapted to that [sound], hearing it so much.”

On soloing over the form, over a vamp, or openly:

“I guess there’s a slightly different approach to playing an open solo as opposed to when people are playing behind you. Playing over the form, I tend to think more melodically, and try to use parts of the song to help construct the solo. If I’m playing more of an open solo, then maybe I’ll take a different approach like utilizing more space, and not thinking so much about the melody, but more about the colors I want to bring in, and dynamics I want to play with. When I’m playing over a vamp, I tend to think more of trying to play off of what the other guys are playing-playing different rhythms behind them, layering rhythms over rhythms. If it’s a vamp in seven, I might try to play five over that or three under that. I think when there’s something constant going on behind you, it makes layering easier, as opposed to trying to do that by yourself. So those are the types of things I think about: playing different metric modulations, different polyrhythms over what they’re playing. That might be a little different from what I would do if I were playing over the form.”

A veteran of both the music and the scene, Blake has witnessed the considerable cultural shift from his own experience arriving in the metropolitan area in the mid-’90s. After migrating from Philadelphia to New York, he felt fortunate to be able to parlay the familial apprenticeship of his youth into a myriad of professional ones that have included associations with Kenny Barron and Tom Harrell. Today, Blake fears many young players are less interested in fostering relationships with the legendary artists who came before them. “There’s a slight disconnect with the younger generation,” he says.

“A lot of them are more concerned with having their own voice and their own sound, and not realizing what we’re all doing has already been done. It’s really important to know the history of this music. When I joined the Mingus Band, I was playing with people like Jack Walwrath, Jack Stubblefield, John Hicks. These people had been out there-they were playing with Art Blakey; they had played with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. There’s a certain history that these elder statesmen of this music bring. If you were lucky, you could be taken under their wing, so to speak. Today, there’s less of that. A lot of those elder statesmen have passed on. I feel it’s my duty, and the duty of other musicians of my generation, to pass on some of what these elder statesmen have taught us. I feel if we don’t do that, we’re kind of doing a disservice to them, because they took time out of their schedules to tell us how things were meant to be.

On closing the gap:

“Part of the reason I wanted to record Gone, But Not Forgotten was to [connect musically with younger players]. Most of the songs are covers from musicians who have since passed on, and I thought this could be a way to connect the younger generation to some of these musicians whom they may not have heard of, or may not have had the opportunity to see live. Because people like Mark Turner and Chris Potter and Ben Street have such a fan base with younger musicians, this [might be] a way for them to hear [our predecessors]. These guys didn’t just start out playing the way they play now; they checked out the masters before them. So, for me, this [record] was a way to connect the two-to bridge that gap. I can’t count how many people-young kids-have come up to me and said, ‘Man, these songs are great.’ They’re checking it out. So maybe they’ll do some homework and try to find the original recordings of Firm Roots, or the original recordings of some of the other artists whose music I’ve featured on this recording: Mulgrew Miller, Charles Fambrough, Trudy Pitts. There’s a plethora of information out there and it’s up to these young women and men to go out and seek it.”

Blake’s melodic articulation, rhythmic innovation and collaborative tendencies are part of a larger musical dialogue that spans decades. Learning through listening and reacting has been his method of musical synthesis since his first violin lesson at age 3. As he continues to evolve as an artist, he encourages the generation behind him to join the thread of conversation, and develop their own interpretation of the concepts that came before them. “I hope the younger generation will be more diligent about trying to learn the history of this music,” he says. “If we let that go by, we might be saying goodbye to it, but if we continue to cultivate it, then it will last forever.”

Johnathan Blake has been a central figure in the Jazz Gallery’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series, celebrating 20 years of creativity and innovation at the New York venue. He will be playing there with Dayna Stephen’s quintet this Saturday, December 19.