Johnathan Blake: Gone, But Not Forgotten

Inspired by jazz luminaries who have recently departed, Johnathan Blake’s second album as a leader explores material by Cedar Walton, Jim Hall, Mulgrew Miller, Paul Motian, Frank Foster, Frank Wess and Eddie Harris. The NYC-based, Philly-born drummer also pays tribute to three of Philadelphia’s finest musicians: Charles Fambrough, Trudy Pitts and James “Sid” Simmons, and includes two original compositions-one dedicated to the daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene, Ana Grace, who was killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy, the second to gifted bassist Dwayne Burno, who passed away last year at 43. Thematically solemn, the recording nonetheless brims with a life-affirming sense of creativity and vitality.

The fiery lineup features two stellar saxophonists-Mark Turner and Chris Potter-with Ben Street on bass. Sans chordal instrument, the two distinct horns are free to play with and against each other as Blake drives the proceedings with Street. Walton’s “Firm Roots” has both Turner and Potter burning; Simmons’ jazz-funk vehicle “Maracas Beach” features Potter on alto flute that, together with Turner’s tenor, creates a unique sonic palette matching the tune’s breezy brightness. For “All Across the City”-which Blake performed with its composer, Jim Hall-the drummer uses a handwritten chart given to him by Hall, infusing the classic ballad with his personal harmonic touch. Blake’s propulsiveness, imagination and dexterity are showcased on Fambrough’s “Broski” (named after Art Blakey), Motian’s “Circle Dance” and his own “The Shadower.”

Blake is one of the most sought-after drummers of his generation, playing alongside Tom Harrell, Oliver Lake, Kenny Barron and others; here he expresses his singular voice, not only through the choice of material and bandmates, but his adventurous, driving yet sensitive playing, infusing beloved tunes with new life and demonstrating fine compositional aptitude as well.