A big-toned, gutsy, hard-swinging instrumentalist who is known for hard bop and soul-jazz, saxman Ron Blake should not be confused with either the '60s drummer Ronnie Blake, or the late-'90s- early-2000s trumpeter Ron Blake (a session player who has appeared in rock and R&B settings). Saxophonist Blake (who is best known for his tenor and soprano playing, but can also handle the baritone and alto saxes) can be lyrical or romantic but always brings a lot of grit to his solos; he is obviously well aware of the funkier, bluesier side of jazz and usually doesn't go out of his way to be abstract. Blake brings a long list of influences to his work, and they range from Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, to Grover Washington, Jr., Gene Ammons, and Stanley Turrentine. Blake has been compared to all of those saxmen, and some more valid comparisons include Eddie Harris, Ron Holloway, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, David "Fathead" Newman, and Robert "Bootsie" Barnes (a superb tenor man who is famous in Philadelphia but little-known in other cities). Although Blake has lived in New York City since the early '90s, he isn't a native of the Big Apple; the improviser was born in the Virgin Islands. Blake was only eight when he began studying the guitar, and at the age of ten, he started learning the sax after being exposed to the record collection of his father (who was seriously into hard bop, soul-jazz and organ combos). Blake's first saxophone was an alto, but eventually, he learned the tenor, soprano, and baritone saxes as well; he also studied the flute. After leaving the Virgin Islands, Blake ended up in the Midwestern United States, where he graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan before moving to the Chicago area and attending Northwestern University in Evanston, IL in the 1980s. At Northwestern, Blake studied classical saxophone with Dr. Frederick Hemke, but jazz, not classical, won out -- and the late '80s found Blake playing a lot of bop gigs in Chi-Town (where he crossed paths with local icons like tenor man Von Freeman and pianist Jodie Christian). Although he found that Chicago had a rich jazz scene, Blake didn't stay; in 1990, he moved to Florida after being offered a teaching gig at the University of South Florida. But Blake didn't remain in Florida either; in 1992, he moved to New York City, where he spent five years in trumpeter Roy Hargrove's quintet ,and seven years in flugelhornist Art Farmer's group. By the early 2000s, Blake was leading his own quartet, which included pianist Shedrick Mitchell, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Greg Hutchinson. Blake's first album as a leader, Up Front & Personal, was released on the Tahmun label in 2000. That CD was followed by 2003's Christian McBride-produced Lest We Forget, a Mack Avenue release that found Blake paying tribute to three soul-jazz greats who had died: Grover Washington, Jr., Stanley Turrentine, and organist Charles Earland. ~ Alex Henderson
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Jazz - Released January 29, 2008 | Mack Avenue Records
Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake makes large statements utilizing small groups on his latest Mack Avenue release, offering 13 diverse and creative duo and trio recordings. Although Virgin Island native Blake's name is the one on the cover here, co-credit truly should have gone to pianist and producer Michael Cain, who appears on every track, wrote or co-wrote some of the music, and guides it all as much as Blake does. The two work beautifully together, and although Shayari probably would have played just as splendidly if Blake and Cain were the only two musicians on it, its A-list of guests -- bassist (and former employer) Christian McBride, drummer Jack DeJohnette, violinist Regina Carter, and percussionist Gilmar Gomes -- brings vital flavorings to the tracks on which the guests appear. While it's still often tempting to play "spot the influences" in Blake's playing, he's clearly emerged as his own man here: his solos bear a light but forceful touch; his phrasing is smart and absorbing, often boldly leaving the confines he's set up for himself to see what might lie on the other side. For his part, Cain's ornate solos and fills add multiple dimensions to the tunes. At times one might long for the players to cut loose more than they do -- and sometimes, as on the playful "Atonement" and Cain's "76," DeJohnette does run with it, not bothering to wait for Blake and Cain to keep up -- but Blake always keeps things moving quickly, deceptively so at times. On his composition "Of Kindred Souls," which Roy Hargrove covered some 15 years earlier with Blake along for the ride as a bandmember, Carter's violin (the only track on which she appears, unfortunately) is used sparingly but effectively, and McBride, as always, adds depth to his two spots, particularly the skippy, Latin-tinged "Teddy," a Bobby Hutcherson tune. Gomes is probably the least known of the guest contributors, his unobtrusive percussion serving more of a sprinkling than the full-on attack of DeJohnette's drums. But he is undeniably an essential component of his three tracks: on the album-opening "Waltz for Gwen," which Blake cut previously on his 2000 debut as a leader, then playing alto, the Brazilian Gomes heads instinctively south as Blake blows authoritatively and sensually and Cain dabbles in the blues. All of this is put forth in a sparkling, closely recorded manner that should finally establish the name Ron Blake -- and the name Michael Cain -- as a jazz force to be reckoned with. ~ Jeff Tamarkin
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