Drummer Johnathan Blake to release Trion, an exhilarating chordless trio outing captured live with fellow modern jazz greats Chris Potter and Linda May Han Oh
Blake’s double album available April 5, 2019, is the second release from Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts, a groundbreaking, artist-focused non-profit with a single mission:
to help modern jazz innovators create their art free of commercial pressure
“Johnathan Blake is a drummer equally capable of muscular propulsion and subtle shading.” – Nate Chinen, New York Times
“[Blake’s] playing is furious but never overpowering, always alive with inner detail, galvanizing the players in his midst.” – David R. Adler, The New York City Jazz Record
One of the most in-demand drummers of his generation, Johnathan Blake takes an all-too-rare turn as a leader with his vibrant new release, Trion. The album, captured live before a thrilled audience at New York City’s renowned Jazz Gallery, features a virtuoso chordless trio with two fellow masters of their instruments: the modern tenor giant Chris Potter and the eloquent bassist Linda May Han Oh. Trion, packed with nearly two hours of thrilling, exhilarating music, will be released April 5, 2019 thanks to the groundbreaking new non-profit Giant Step Arts, led by noted photographer and recording engineer Jimmy Katz.
Though Blake’s name is on the cover, he approached this trio date with the same sense of open camaraderie with which he enters into any musical situation – the collaborative spirit that makes him such a remarkable drummer. The album’s title is taken from a physics term that refers to three atoms combining to form a single unit, a concept that is deeply meaningful in the context of this highly attuned trio.
Blake initially put this trio as a collective which called itself the BOP Trio, inspired by the initials of each member’s last name. Their instant chemistry stemmed from extensive playing together in other situations: Blake had worked in similar chordless settings under Potter’s leadership along with Larry Grenadier and Ben Street, and with Oh in trios with Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw.
“I’m in awe of both Linda and Chris,” Blake says. “This was a really beautiful chance for us to make some honest music together and I really enjoyed the process. We all felt very comfortable in the chordless format; we really know how to fill up the space without getting in each other’s way, which gives each one of us the opportunity to have our shining moments.”
When Katz approached him with the offer to record, Blake says, “I was almost in shock. It’s almost unheard of for artists nowadays to own their own project if they sign with a record label. Jimmy and [his wife and partner] Dena Katz have always been strong advocates for the music and they just want the best artistic project out there. Their idea is that if the project is really good, it’s not only a reflection of the artist but it’s also a reflection on them. I think they’re really visionaries in that respect.”
Both of Trion’s two discs opens with a solo drum feature by Blake; the expressive “Calodendrum” is named for an evergreen tree native to Africa, reflecting the drum language’s roots on the continent, while “Bedrum” is a word that means “to drum about in celebration,” which couldn’t be more appropriate for Blake’s joyful percussion explosions.
The band initially enters via Potter’s arrangement of The Police’s frenetic “Synchronicity I,” which showcases the trio’s brilliant attack and sustained intensity, stretching out over an enthralling and invigorating 17 minutes. Oh’s deeply moving solo leads into her own moody piece “Trope,” built on her brooding bass throb and a sinuous melody beautifully expressed by Potter.
Potter contributes two pieces; the composer sets the pace for the lively bounce of the South African-inspired “Good Hope” by using his sax keys as percussion instruments, while the weightless lines of “Eagle” soar with seemingly effortless grace. Blake’s own originals look back to his early days in Philadelphia. “West Berkley St.,” named for the street where Blake grew up in the city’s Germantown section, and “High School Daze” both groove with the influence of the funk and hip hop tunes he heard alongside jazz, while the latter adds in a few unexpected swerves that suggest the stupor of wandering from classroom to classroom. “No Bebop Daddy” was inspired by saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s young son, who would loudly protest his father’s choice of music from his car seat on morning rides to school.
Blake’s own father, the late jazz violinist John Blake Jr., is represented by his “Blue Heart,” a previously unrecorded composition. “Since he left us in 2014 I’ve made it a point to continue to celebrate my father’s life and legacy,” Blake says. “It’s a way for me to continue to let people know about this man who was such a great artist and beautiful human being.”
Bassist Charles Fambrough was a family friend and a collaborator with John Blake Jr. in the McCoy Tyner band. Fambrough’s “One for Honor” was originally recorded on Tyner’s 1980 album Horizon, and later on the bassist’s own 1991 release The Proper Angle. “Charles basically knew me from birth and was one of the first people to give me a professional gig when I was still living in Philadelphia. He was like an uncle to me, and I want his music to live on and people to know about this amazing musician who left us way too soon.”
The trio’s take on Charlie Parker’s classic “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” was unplanned, an on-the-spot decision when the Jazz Gallery audience demanded an encore. Its muscular swing and infectious exuberance, especially coming on the spur of the moment, reveals the three musicians’ love for playing together along with their spirited virtuosity.
“A lot of magic and beauty can come out of the freedom to explore that Jimmy granted us,” Blake says. “I think the reason the music sounds the way that it does is because there was so much trust and freedom.”
Johnathan Blake, one of the most accomplished drummers of his generation, has also proven himself a complete and endlessly versatile musician — "the ultimate modernist," as John Murph of NPR has dubbed him. Blake's gift for composition and band leading, so ably demonstrated on his 2012 recording debut The Eleventh Hour, reflects years of live and studio experience across the aesthetic spectrum. Through years-long memberships in the Tom Harrell Quintet, the Kenny Barron Trio and other top ensembles, Blake has reaped the benefits of prolonged exposure to the greats of our time — arguably of all time. Through his powerful, evocative drumming and fully rounded artistry, he's also left a huge imprint on the music of such rising figures in jazz as Hans Glawischnig, Alex Sipiagin, Donny McCaslin, Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital, Patrick Cornelius, Michael Janisch, Shauli Einav, Jaleel Shaw and more.