Michael Blake: In the Grand Scheme of Things
Put on Michael Blake's In the Grand Scheme of Things and you'd be forgiven for thinking someone at the production factory inserted a Miles Davis recording circa Nefertiti into the sleeve by mistake. That the two musicians heard during the album's opening moments are trumpeter JP Carter (Inhabitants, Fond of Tigers) and drummer Dylan van der Schyff perpetuates the illusion, as the two revive memories of the Davis-Tony Williams interplay at the heart of Miles Smiles, E.S.P., and Filles de Kilimanjaro, among others. Blake enters soon enough with a Wayne Shorter-like cool to assert his own presence before the quartet achieves lift-off, the bass role assumed in Blake's new Variety Hour quartet by keyboardist Chris Gestrin, who plays Rhodes and Micromoog bass on the date. In similar manner, the central section in “Variety Hour” plays like an updated riff on the Bitches Brew tune “Sanctuary,” and Blake and Carter often pair up just as Davis and Shorter did so splendidly all those years ago.
As a composer, Blake often draws on the same era, with distinctive tunes like “Variety Hour” evidencing an affinity for unexpected left turns and atmospheric moodsculpting like many a Shorter classic of yore. “The Searchers” and “Serenity Lodge” exude free-floating qualities that not only call late-‘60s Miles to mind but also the early days of Weather Report, when the group brought a more improv-styled approach to its music-making. The aptly titled “Willie (The Lonely Cowboy)” finds Blake caressing the melancholy material with as much affection as a Joe Lovano, Blake's sax the stabilizing ground for van der Schyff's free-form expressions. Blake isn't afraid to wears his influences on his sleeve, either, as the undeniably Monk-ish “Cybermonk” illustrates. Close your eyes following the boppish head and there are moments when one could imagine it's Charlie Rouse blowing, not Michael Blake.
The Variety Hour group's versatility is roundly demonstrated in the styles explored on the recording, be it ballads (“View of Oblivion”), an Otis Redding cover (the soulful blues “Treat Her Right”), or something more free-flowing and explorative (“Freedom from Exile,” “Cordiale Drive”). So, yes, while Blake's disc, his follow-up to 2007's Amor de Cosmos, does liberally draw upon multiple traditions, he's hardly the first and only artist, jazz or otherwise, to do so. Taken on its own terms, In the Grand Scheme of Things shows itself to be a consistently strong collection distinguished by superior musicianship and group interplay.