It isn’t rare for artists to speak of the journey that they have taken in their maturation. It is more impressive when they apply the principles of discovery and challenge into every part of their lives. Saxophonist and composer Dan Blake happens to be just one of those artists who strives to do just that in an effort to make himself a better artist and person.
From the beginning of his musical studies, Blake has made it his aim to work as a leader in the jazz tradition, but on his own terms. His interest in music from all over the world and his work with a diverse group of leaders, including Esperanza Spalding, Julian Lage and Anthony Braxton, has produced a musician and listener of depth. Blake has brought that all-encompassing spirit to his own work, with his first two recordings being somewhat historical forays into early jazz and post bop, as seen through the lens of Blake’s idiosyncratic and modernistic style. He has gone on to experiment with modern classical and more avant-garde work, trying to blur the boundaries of each.
Blake’s practice of Buddhism has also posed special questions to him, allowing him to consider the balance of his spiritual, artistic and social goals. His practice has made him reconsider many life practices and his relationships, not to mention how he approaches his music.
On his new recording The Digging, Blake looks at his music from a different angle, accepting the test of leading and composing for a chordless sax trio, thus stripping away harmonic layers that he has leaned on in earlier projects. The new formula allows Blake to find his voice through the freeing potential of exploring the compositions in such an open and interactive setting. The title of The Digging refers to not only to the jazz nomenclature of liking something but the actual work of searching and getting beneath the surface, in this case to create a sound that is personal and believable.
The trio that Blake enlisted includes his long time friend and collaborator Dmitry Ishenko on bass and drummer Eric Harland, who Blake met during his tenure with Julian Lage. Ishenko was a natural choice as Blake has played with him for nearly 15 years and they were both students of great pedagogue and soprano saxophone innovator Steve Lacy. Harland’s excellence behind the kit is no secret and he really brings his all to this project.
There is an undeniably strong history in the saxophone-fronted trio, all led with the intention of freeing the group into improvisational openness. Blake definitely wanted this freedom, but he also wanted to maintain strong structural elements through his compositions, thus covering the whole span of the jazz tradition. The formal and the free aspects all come together here, likening to the Buddhist idea of exploring the duality of form and emptiness.
The recording begins with the initial jolt of “The Bite,” a grooving homage to the thing he was always told not to do while learning the saxophone, which he does intermittently throughout on his strident soprano sax. Based on a rhythm of a Buddhist chant, the sedate “Incomparable Field” is an aural meditation on reaching the end of a quest. Blake fleshes out the harmony with additional woodwinds, featuring Brian Landrus, Josh Sinton, Sam Sadigursky and Mariano Gil.
Blake takes up the tenor on the difficult “The Louvre,” which was written for Harland with a constant groove and open concept. “Back To Lackritz” is for Steve Lacy (his birth name being Lackritz) and Blake utilizes many of the compositional and improvisatory elements of his late teacher, including repetition, shifting styles and collective improvising. Ishenko’s bass opens the lovely ballad “When I Saw You Dance,” a dedication to Blake’s then unborn daughter, written after witnessing her fluid, dancelike movement on an ultrasound.
A reference to the Heart Sutra, the ever-intensifying “Without Walls” is the most experimental of the compositions presented here and an obvious tip to the free jazz tradition. The piece is about energy and density and breaking limitations without fear. The program concludes with another wink to the jazz tradition, in the case of “The Lonely Liar,” the bebop tradition, with its AABA form based on the classic of the idiom, “Cherokee.”
The ever-humble Dan Blake has kept an open mind and let influences of all sorts inform his work as a saxophonist and composer. The Digging is a testament to his humanity, adventurousness and conceptual integrity.