Philadelphia native Johnathan Blake got his start at the age of 6, playing a violin duet of “Many Ways to Say I Love You” on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with his father, jazz violinist John Blake Jr. Before long, he was saying it with drumsticks. Almost 30 years later, he’s released his debut album, a long-marinating, hard-swinging collection of mostly originals with hints of his other hometown neighbors, Butch Ballard, Philly Joe Jones and Rashied Ali. Blake has mastered that fast and loose Philly style, the vertiginous sensation of being both slightly behind the beat and hurtling into the next measure.
Blake cut his teeth with the Oliver Lake Big Band while studying at William Paterson University, going on to earn a master’s degree at Rutgers with a focus on composition. He’s played with Roy Hargrove, the 3 Cohens, David Sánchez and Tom Harrell, but this is the first time his compositions have been out front.
On songs like “No Left Turn,” Blake employs a rhythmic counterpoint, with saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Mark Turner acting as his right and left hands. Still, there’s nothing lacking in lyricism or harmonic complexity; Blake grew up with Shaw and it shows. On the uptempo “Freefall,” Shaw’s alto builds momentum until he seems to reach zero gravity, with pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street keeping it weightless. The album’s closer, “Canvas,” written by and featuring Robert Glasper, is bookended by recordings of Blake’s children. It may not be Mr. Rogers, but he’s passing it on.