Saxophonist Michael Blake set out for NYC to play jazz with the living legends of the genre; striving to be on deck for Art Blakey's Messengers or make it with Miles Davis. But instead, like so many others he toiled away playing everything and anything that paid the rent. His break came in the early 90’s when John Lurie invited him to perform in his famed group The Lounge Lizards. This of course changed his life; within a few years he was leading a band backed up by John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood of MMW, and recording with rising jazz stars Ben Allison, Steven Bernstein and Thomas Chapin.
After putting out 1997's Kingdom of Champa (produced by Teo Macero) he was hailed by Village Voice music critic Jim Macnie as an "old soul who might make you think his car just got stolen" and The NY Times wrote of his "panoramic imagination". The reviews landed him enough praise to launch a solo career and garner him 'downtown' cred.
At the time Blake was busy in the Lounge Lizards, he joined the prestigious grassroots non-profit Jazz Composers Collective and received numerous grants to further his ambitions in the field of creative music. But he also lived a double life playing gigs with blues and soul bands in dive bars and small clubs. Blues Brothers keyboardist Rusty Cloud had started a brash and bold R&B unit called Skillet and he nestled in with The Coolerators who backed up Pinetop Perkins. His emotive, intelligent, high energy tenor sax solos could be relied on to raise the roof. However, Blake found himself split in two - half high brow composer of new instrumental music and half low brow smokin' bar band tenor sax soloist. Finally Blake found the perfect balance in Slow Poke, a raunchy but subtle combo that included the Bill Frisell/Sex Mob bass and drums rhythm team of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen and the spectacular slide guitarist David Tronzo. Together they built a rep on playing dirty covers, Afro funk jams and slithery blues. At Tonic, the coolest downtown venue at the time, they packed in crowds for midnight sets that would last for hours. After two releases and several tours the band was well on its way to success until 9/11 struck and Tronzo packed up and left town.
Undeterred, Blake entered his most prolific time. He recorded celebrated jazz albums; Drift, Elevated, Right Before Your Very Ears, Blake Tartare, Amor de Cosmos and more, touring the world with a wide assortment of internationally acclaimed jazz musicians. In 2014 Blake returned to a conventional jazz quartet format and recorded Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside). The album was his first effort to play jazz in a style evocative of the classic era of the 1950's and 60's. It won over listeners and bemused critics with its blatant honest attempt at jazz without pretense. Tiddy Boom is a swinging and pure jazz album, procuring 4.5 stars in Downbeat and many top ten lists. What Blake was setting out to do was reinvent himself as a true heir to a type of saxophone playing that is becoming rare in today's world. A style that has the essence of the devil's horn; the fire of early R&B, the erudite character of the swing era, the buoyancy of bebop, the passion of Coltrane, with the player coming through front and center.
And now, Michael Blake introduces RED HOOK SOUL (Ropeadope); a record that takes that honesty a giant step further. It's his funkiest and most soulful album yet, with that hallmark scratchy tenor sound recorded almost perfectly. After hearing the band at the former speakeasy Red Hook bar Sunny's, producer Andy Taub ushered the band into his Brooklyn studio for the love of the sound.
Red Hook Soul is about Blake's real life, gritty experiences playing music in the dive bars of New York. A few originals appear with classic covers: Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles and Lana del Rey. Red Hook Soul features some of Brooklyn's most seasoned musicians: bassist Tim Lüntzel, drummer Tony Mason, keyboardist Erik Deutsch, guitarist Avi Bortnick, percussionist Moses Patrou and guitarist Tony Scherr.
The result is an old school party album that will move your body and soul. The ballads are gorgeous and free of affectation- soulful saxophone played in a manner that is almost extinct, backed up by a superb band. Clearing the clutter from his metaphorical closet, Michael Blake delivers pure soul music, the gritty and joyful story of an old soul.
red hook soul
October 14, 2016
Red Hook sits on the southern end of Brooklyn. Just a short ride from Manhattan, it has a rich history and a gritty past having been a major player in the bustling days of NYC's harbor. It was the centerpiece in Eli Kazan's film On the Waterfront. There's a funky sea fare vibe there and in some areas it's still an active port. You'll find rusted out ships sitting next to the water taxi stands that shunt shoppers to and from popular consumer warehouses There are loads of low-rise buildings so the light spreads over the flat lands and you can see the skyline of lower Manhattan and the harbor from many vantage points. Cut off from neighbors by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (one of the most devastating urban projects in NYC history) it is tied together by a strong community driven housing project and a random mash up of residential and industrial buildings that somehow all seem to get along. I used to jog down the long pier on Columbia Street where impounded vehicles are held and I'll always remember stopping in my tracks one day because I came upon the emergency vehicles that were towed there after 9/11. Most people will remember seeing residents waste deep in floodwaters after Hurricane Sandy pummeled it in 2012. But New Yorkers find a way to rise above adversity and Red Hook is no different. From gentrification the landscape has changed a lot but 'old' Red Hook is still evident - especially at places like Sunny’s - a long-standing former speakeasy where this band played its first gig. There is a lot of community spirit in this music; built on the same kind of familiarity and roughneck Brooklyn character as the neighborhood it is a tribute to.
- Michael Blake
Michael Blake - tenor & soprano saxophone*
Tony Scherr - lead guitar
Avi Bortnick - rhythm guitar*
Erik Deutsch - piano and Yamaha Y45D
Tim Lüntzel - electric bass
Moses Patrou - percussion
Tony Mason - drums
Recorded by Andy Taub at Brooklyn Recording, October 19 & 20, 2015
Mixed by Andy Taub
Produced by Michael Blake and Andy Taub
Arrangements by Michael Blake
Cover Art: Esteban del Valle