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Michael Blake: In the Grand Scheme of Things

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Tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, a Canadian native who splits his time between Vancouver and Brooklyn, is never wanting for conceptual paths to take. His albums have included a reflection on his travels to Vietnam and one that processes his boyhood memories of British Columbia. In the Grand Scheme of Things, featuring Blake’s terrific Vancouver quartet, Variety Hour, conjures a bleakly beautiful landscape in a three-part mini-suite. But the dominant concept here is creating an utterly distinctive sound involving Micro-moog synthesizer and electronic washes. Always a bold texturalist, Blake may have outdone himself this time.

What’s so striking about the sound, as artfully put together as it is, is how seamless it is-how natural Chris Gestrin’s “walking” Moog lines and dark, gurgling synth harmonies can be. (Gestrin also plays Fender Rhodes.) With the superb drummer Dylan van der Schyff lending a clean edge to the textures with his deft accents and elegant grounding strokes, the music moves agreeably from the spooky-spirited, Weather Report-influenced stops on the “Road to Lusaka” to the bursting harmonies and circular swing of “Cybermonk” to the gospel touches and existential dread of “Willie (the Lonely Cowboy).” On “The Searchers,” the band opens up to engage in fractured modernism before arriving at elegiac emotion via trumpeter JC Carter’s Dave Douglas-like solo.

Blake is a steadying force even as he varies his approach on tenor, basking in a classic sound here, sliding off the tonal center there. On a soulfully searching cover of the Roy Head-associated “Treat Her Right,” he adds edge to his playing, raising the energy by knocking out tight unison lines with Carter. Bringing the ballad home, he tries a little tenderness and imparts a lot. Blake frees himself of conceptual concerns even more on Union Square, an infectiously relaxed trio session recorded for an Italian label with a pair of East Coast cronies, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Rudy Royston. Tenor trios frequently don’t have enough meat on their bones, but the full-bodied playing and pronounced warmth of this threesome give the music exceptional presence.

The level of interaction is very high, from the spirited exchanges on Blake’s “Flapper” to the tight harmonies on Royston’s Coltrane-ish “Run Southern Boy.” Blake switches to soprano saxophone for a wistful, restrained reading of Duke Ellington’s “Wig Wise” (the only non-original) and a very different version of his “Big Smile” than the one on Grand Scheme of Things. Ultimately, with its beautifully sustained mood, Union Square feels less like a collection of songs than one unified work.

Originally Published