CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Johnathan Blake: Before & After

The drummer of prime pedigree loves his pockets

Johnathan Blake
Johnathan Blake (photo: Jimmy Katz)

When the world was in a more social way, the sight of Johnathan Blake behind the drum kit was a sign of maximum support, comfort, and taste. It still is today, as we gather around our laptops to enjoy music online. Ask any of the notable bandleaders who’ve brought Blake onstage over the years, Pharoah Sanders, Tom Harrell, Ravi Coltrane, Kenny Barron, Maria Schneider, Q-Tip, and Dr. Lonnie Smith among them: His balance of drive and openness—locking down a pulse free of a locked-down feel, being propulsive without the push—is one of the subtler charms on the current scene. He also offers one of the more distinctive sights in modern jazz. Other than perhaps Antonio Sánchez, do any drummers position their cymbals lower or flatter? He’s a photographer’s dream, unobstructed from the waist up.

To fans who know Blake’s heritage, and to many followers on Facebook who are learning about it through copious posts filled with childhood photos, he’s to the jazz manor born. Son of violinist John Blake, Jr., he arrived in the U.S.A.’s bicentennial year, growing up in Philadelphia’s rich musical hotbed of the ’80s and ’90s and embraced by giants, literally; among his online throwback images are preteen Johnathan hugged by the likes of Elvin Jones, Joanne Brackeen, and others. In recent years, he has stepped out as a leader, bringing forth albums on a variety of labels—The Eleventh Hour (Sunnyside, 2012), Gone, But Not Forgotten (Criss Cross, 2014), and Trion (Giant Step Arts, 2018). A new recording being readied for Giant Step, Homeward Bound, features his latest group Pentad: saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist David Virelles, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and bassist Dezron Douglas.

In 2020, the world has changed, and Blake continues to rise to the challenges of the day, staying limber, writing music, performing online as often as he can. He chooses to look at the positive side of the lockdown: “It’s been kind of a joy to be able to wake up and not really have any set thing to do, to be home for a change, like I’m back in high school again. I haven’t had this much time off in years, so I’m trying to make the best of it. That’s all we can do.”

Blake is grateful too for the songwriting grant he recently received from the newly formed Jazz Coalition Commission Fund. “I appreciate Brice [Rosenbloom, Jazz Coalition founder with Gail Boyd and Danny Melnick] and everybody doing this. They selected around 50 musicians for this grant, to write a piece of music dealing with the times we’re living in right now and perform it. I had already started writing some music dealing with some of the people we lost because a lot were actually from my hometown.”

In late July after months at home, Blake performed at New York’s Jazz Gallery, whose director Rio Sakairi is doing her best to keep the scene alive, for a live stream with Ravi Coltrane’s “classic” quartet—back with Virelles and Douglas. “That was the first time playing since March. It was very emotional for me hitting those first notes. I was like, ‘Man, this feels really different.’ I was trying to dust off the cobwebs, a lot of Sloppy Joe Jones there, but I was having fun. It just felt good to play with some other people besides playing with Logic [the software, not the DJ]. It just felt great.”

This listening session was conducted online via Zoom with more than 50 people attending, some from as far away as South Africa. It was Blake’s first Before & After.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Aziza
“Sleepless Night” (Aziza, Dare2). Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: All right. I think I got it. I know that’s Lionel [Loueke]. Even before he came in with the vocals I could tell. I’ve played a lot with him and there’s something he does with effects, like almost a slapping thing he does a lot with the guitar. I’ve always enjoyed hearing that. That sounds like Eric Harland on drums. There’s an attack Eric does that really sounds familiar to me, and also the way he tunes his snare is very unique. That’s Chris Potter, of course. 

AFTER: Chris has a certain sound—I’ve played with him for many years so I can pretty much tell it’s him right away, and also Eric. He’s using some different cymbals that I haven’t heard him use in a while, so it took me a second, but as soon as he started playing the snare I was like, “Okay, that’s Harland.” I love his interaction between the snare and bass drum, the conversation he has. 

Then Lionel has such a distinct sound on his instrument. I’ve watched him do some solo projects, which are always amazing, and about three or four years ago I was in St. Louis at the Bistro with Dr. Lonnie Smith and he was a special guest with us, with Jonathan Kreisberg. It was just amazing to have two guitars for those four nights, and to listen to the contrast of the two guitars. 

I caught Aziza live at the Chicago Jazz Fest … no, no, it was in Europe. I can’t remember. Maybe Perugia [Umbria Jazz Festival] or something like. It was great.  Dave gives each member the freedom to create. It’s a beautiful experience. I had the pleasure of working with him recently with Kenny Barron, and I love how he encourages the interaction. He doesn’t want you to just play time. He wants you to interact with everything that’s going around, creating some rhythmic tension or whatever. He’s such a sturdy player so you really feel free, like you can go anywhere.

I’ve noticed Dave’s smaller groups might just be three or four players, but it’ll feel like 10 people onstage.

Yeah. That’s what I loved about that quintet he used to have with [Joshua] Redman and Chris [Potter] and Steve Nelson. It almost had a big-band feeling to it, and that speaks volumes to the way he composes—you can hear the bigger picture. With Dave, the composing and the playing all goes together. There’s no “I” in band, so in a band situation it has to be everybody that’s involved in the project. When you get great musicians together like these, you’re listening for that interaction, you’re wondering what’s the story they’re telling, what journey are they going to take us on. Everybody gets their chance to interject what they’re feeling. And if the leader is open enough, like Dave is, he just goes along with it and that’s what’s supposed to happen. He got these musicians because he knows how they play, he got them because he respects what they do on and off the bandstand.

2. Lee Morgan
“Beehive” (Live at the Lighthouse, Blue Note). Morgan, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone; Harold Mabern, piano; Jymie Merritt, electric bass; Mickey Roker, drums. Recorded in 1970.

BEFORE: All right! Is that Live at the Lighthouse? I know this composition—it’s by Harold Mabern, “Beehive.” That’s a great record. That’s the history right there—one of my favorites. That’s Joe Henderson, right? Oh, okay, Bennie [Maupin]. I haven’t heard this in a while. I think I had that record on vinyl first before it came out on the boxed set. I wore this recording out. 

Mickey [Roker] was my teacher and he has a very distinct sound on the instrument that never left him. I used to go see him when he used to play with Shirley Scott every week at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus. He was one of the drummers while I was coming up in Philly who was still there, and he and Edgar Bateman and Bobby Durham were the three wise men that took me under their wings, and I was always grateful. 

Mickey had this sound that he could get on the snare and I always used to bug him about it. I was like, “Man, how do you get that?” He would always call me “Little Blake” because he knew my dad—“Little Blake, you just gotta listen to the music.” I’d say, “No, that’s not it.” I would bug him, man. He kinda let me work it out, and that’s what a great teacher is supposed to do: They guide you but they want you to figure it out for yourself. Eventually I got to it. It’s still ingrained in my brain, stuck with me forever. He’s a master.

When I was going to William Paterson University, Harold Mabern was one of my ensemble teachers and I remember he brought in that tune, “Beehive.” He always talked about how he wrote it for Philly Joe [Jones] but never got a chance to record it with Philly. Whenever somebody would introduce me to a new tune I would try to see where it was first recorded, and study that original recording. I got used to listening to records all the way through. Now you can just push a button and skip around, but I always liked listening to the whole record. Then turn it over and listen to the B side.

Respecting the sequence—like putting together a set list for a gig.

Yeah, in a way it is. I feel like you get a glimpse in the person’s head, how they were thinking about the overall flow of the album. If you skip around, you just don’t know what the thinking was behind why they put this song where. Even now, if I’ve downloaded something on iTunes, I’ll listen through the whole record.

3. Christian McBride’s New Jawn
“Ke-Kelli Sketch” (Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Mack Avenue). Josh Evans, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; McBride, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: Is that [Joe] Lovano? Is that Dave King? Something in the way that he’s attacking the drums reminds me of something Dave would do. That’s killin’. I like it. It’s funny, the hi-hats remind me of Tony [Williams] and the cymbals remind me of some stuff I’ve heard Andrew Cyrille do. You’re throwing me with this one, man. I love it, it’s amazing. It’s not a bass player record? It sounds like it is—it’s a bass-heavy record. It’s the overall sound, the first thing I hear is the bass, he like really gets the wood sound and you can almost hear the rosin on the bow. I love hearing that essence, the actual sound of the instrument.

I love the interaction too. I especially love the interaction with the bass and the drums. It reminds me of some other stuff I’ve heard—Gerald Cleaver, some stuff he does. I’m curious to see who it is.

AFTER: Really? Wow. I’ve never heard Christian play like that. It’s refreshing to hear him going there like that. He can go in the big house, so to speak. And Nasheet is always amazing—one of my favorites. I don’t know why I couldn’t recognize him. I’m not used to hearing Christian in this setting, so it kind of threw me. This is an amazing record. I’m thinking, let me investigate this a little more. I’ve seen this group play live a couple times at the Vanguard. They never disappoint, they always kill it. 

I should have gotten Nasheet, though, although it also doesn’t sound like the usual cymbals he uses. He has like an old [Zildjian] K that he uses sometimes and it didn’t sound like that. This is his tune?

Nasheet pushes everybody in a different direction too, which is great. I like that he’s willing to … not force, but to interject certain things that will get people out of their comfort zone. I’ve seen him do that with Jason [Moran], of course, and other bands he’s been in, Scott Colley and people like that. He’s a few years older than me, so he was already on the scene when I got here. He’s like me a bit—growing up with his father on the jazz scene, always entrenched in the music. When I came to New York he was still playing with [saxophonist] Antonio Hart, then I think [pianist] Marc Cary had a trio with him and [bassist] Tarus [Mateen] early on. I always learn a lot when I go to see him play. He always stays true to himself as an artist, never wavers in how he plays, and you either come along or you don’t. 

4. Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science
“Pray the Gay Away” (Waiting Game, Motéma). Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Morgan Guerin, tenor saxophone, EWI, bass, vocals; Matthew Stevens, guitar, vocals; David France, Layth Sidiq, Mimi Rabson, violins; Aaron Parks, synthesizers, vocals; Chris Fishman, Edmar Colón, keyboards; Carrington, drums, percussion, vocals; Nêgah Santos, percussion; Debo Ray, vocals; Brian “Raydar” Ellis, MC; Kassa Overall, MC, turntables. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: That’s killin’. Is that Nate [Smith]? I liked the overall arrangement but I especially loved the pocket. It reminded me of how Nate plays grooves. He has a certain attack when he hits the drums, especially when he’s crashing on the cymbal. Always in the pocket, never lets the groove suffer. Hmmm. I’m not sure. I thought for a second it might be Chris [Dave]. Hold on. Let me try to figure this one out. I don’t know, is it the Drumhedz?

AFTER: Oh, it’s Terri. Well, that makes sense. She can play pocket like no other. Is this the new record, with Kassa? They did an [NPR] Tiny Desk concert recently and it was great. Terri’s one of my favorites—one of the ones that can play straight-ahead but also play the groove, and it always feels good. No hiccups in the playing, so to speak—such a complete player. 

The very first time I saw her was when she was playing on The Arsenio Hall Show. I think the first time I met her she was playing with Herbie [Hancock] and that had to be in the mid-’90s. They were on tour and I got to see her in Barcelona. I was just in awe. I never want to bother somebody when they first come off the stage, but I just wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed her playing. It was like, “Yo, I’m a big fan.” [Laughs] A really brief conversation.

Recently we’ve gotten a bit closer. I guess it was last year Kenny Barron did a residency at SFJazz and the first night was different duos, with Regina Carter, Eddie Henderson, and Terri Lyne. I sat backstage and watched and then we got to talking afterwards. She’s an amazing player, and an amazing person too. I like that she’s also getting into the educational component of the music too, teaching at Berklee. It’s a different mindset when you have working artists that are also teachers. They can tell you exactly what it’s like to be on the road and what the overall vibe is.

It’s also interesting to see she’s surrounding herself with some up-and-coming musicians, and the message that’s in her music. That’s an important part of this music too. I think back to all the luminaries who came before when it wasn’t as easy to speak out as it is now, but still they weren’t afraid to do so—Billie [Holiday], Max [Roach], Abbey [Lincoln], Miles. They put that in their music, like Terri and others are still doing. It’s important to keep these conversations open. You have to because that’s the only way that change can come about. Enough is enough, and we have to make changes. Stuff can’t keep continuing to go along the way it’s been. Seeing more and more of that happening now in the music is a beautiful thing. It’s being led now by people like Terri, and especially by this younger generation.

5. Philly Joe Jones
“Gone” (Showcase, Riverside). Blue Mitchell, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Bill Barron, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Sonny Clark, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Jones, drums. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Classic! [Shifts to mock understatement] It’s all right. If this is the best you got, whatever. [Laughs] What a great recording. I haven’t heard that in a long time. Of course, this is Philly … Philadelphia Joe Jones. Oh man, classic. It just speaks for itself. Everything he plays is just so in the pocket, it has this soulfulness to it. Every time I hear him, you can always tell this was a dance music. It’s like you can dance to his solos, man, it just feels so good every single time. Everything is just perfect. You can’t mistake that man. If I got that wrong, Kenny Washington would have disowned me. I know Kenny’s online here with us.

Philly was such a heavy presence even though he wasn’t in Philadelphia when I was coming up. He still set the bar really high for drummers in Philly, and continues to do so even after all these years of being gone. We’re all striving to get to that sound and overall vibe on the instrument, making people forget about their troubles.

I got to meet him one time when I was two years old and my father took me to see him. No, I don’t remember being two, but I think it was at this place called the Bijou Café in Philadelphia. There was another gentleman that played with him and with my father, the great pianist Sid Simmons. When I got a little older Sid would tell me stories about being on the road with Philly. He said he was a character, but was always really serious about the music. When it came time to hit, it was take-no-prisoners. That comes through on this recording. There’s also a video I love of Thelonious Monk and I don’t know who the drummer is playing with him. At one point Monk gets him off the drums and brings Philly on, who’s waiting in the wings, and he just kills it. He left nothing on there. 

[Looks at image of Showcase LP] I still have that on vinyl too. Everything on it just … just makes you so happy, man. For me, that’s what music is supposed to do, it’s supposed to uplift and up-build. He just had a way of bringing the joy. Every time I hear him I remember why I wanted to start playing this instrument. Thank you, I needed that.

6. Nate Smith
“Paved” (Pocket Change, Waterbaby). Smith, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: Where was that recorded at? A home studio, really? That sounds amazing. Is that Jamire [Williams]? I know he did a solo record and experimented with different drum kits and filters trying to get different sounds. I don’t know. It’s cool. It doesn’t speak to me in the same way when it’s played right after Philly Joe, but I dig it. I wasn’t ready for it, but let’s just go there. Wait, is that Nate? That’s the record called Pocket Change, right?

He’s a special dude. His pocket stuff is just unbelievable. I remember hearing him very early on with Betty Carter. He had a certain groove even when he was playing straight-ahead that was just unbelievable. Then I heard him later on one of his first gigs with Dave Holland—coming in after Billy Kilson had been in that band for ages, at least six years, which was not an easy thing to do. It was really interesting to hear what he was doing with the music, making it his own. He took it to some places that made Dave and the rest of the band play differently. 

Then with his own band, with Fima [Ephron] and Jaleel [Shaw]. His writing is very creative and he never forsakes the groove and never forgets about the melody. I feel like sometimes when people are writing more in this vein they want to write something so complicated, and you don’t really have to do that, man. You want something that people can walk away remembering, singing what’s been written. For me, Nate always has a way of doing that. He writes some complex rhythmic stuff, some odd-meter stuff, but it’s always in a groove.

Nate’s amazing, and I got to experience that firsthand. We recorded a record together a few years back with a friend of mine, a trumpet player named Nabaté Isles [2018’s Eclectic Excursions], and there were a couple of tracks where we’re actually playing together. It was nice to have him right next to me, seeing his whole approach, how he attacks the snare. He has these deliberate moves that really make his sound consistent. He’s a monster. One of my favorites.

Have you been tempted to do a beats project like this?

I’m always into trying to find new colors with the set, so I am curious about getting into that vein a little more. But I want it to sound honest. I don’t want to sound like it’s forced. I’ve been taking my time and trying to experiment with different setups and presets and Logic, trying to figure out what I can do. For me, it’s a slow process. I’m really new to this type of thing, but it is interesting and I love hearing what can happen.

Gerald Cleaver just released a record experimenting with more electronic stuff and it’s killin’ [Signs, 577 Records, 2020]. At some point I would love to incorporate that into my playing. 

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.