Drummer Johnathan Blake is a rising jazz star with a series of impressive sideman credits and solo recordings. The latest, Homeward Bound, is his Blue Note debut, and befitting of one of his mentors, the recently deceased organist (and Blue Note star) Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Homeward Bound features alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, keyboardist David Virelles, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and upright bassist Dezron Douglas, but it’s Blake who sets the table with his one-minute solo, “In the Beginning Was the Drum.” The drummer’s subsequent title composition then digs deeper. After an introduction by Douglas, he and Blake set a 5/8-timed cadence that inspires solo trades between Wilkins and Ross and a piano break by Virelles, who doubles on Fender Rhodes throughout the stately piece.
Blake’s other originals include the evocative “Rivers & Parks,” on which everyone except him impressively solos; “On the Break,” a trio interlude with Douglas and Virelles; and the quintet showcase “LLL.” That fiery track is ignited by the drummer’s propulsive intro, fanned by its piano and vibes solos, and kept from spreading out of control by the anchoring lines of Wilkins and Douglas. The bassist also contributes “Shakin’ the Biscuits,” which nears free-jazz territory before its blues-based theme, with Virelles adding MiniMoog to his acoustic and electric piano figures.
The Blake-arranged “Abiyoyo” is his take on a traditional South African theme, with an intro recalling Max Roach’s “The Drum Also Waltzes,” and Homeward Bound ends with a surprising take on Joe Jackson’s 1982 pop hit “Steppin’ Out.” Virelles plays an abstract piano intro before stating the vocal melody within the 6/8-timed rhythms of Douglas and Blake, distancing the feel from the original. The 10-minute closer becomes a showcase for Wilkins, whose searching middle solo includes some creative squawks, before Blake’s assertive flurries take the proceedings home.