Ron Blake

Sonic Tonic

Mack Avenue Records, 2 CD set MAC 1020 USA

OK, I don't think Whitney Balliett would refer to tenor saxophonist Ron Blake's new CD as "the sound of surprise," but it is tuneful, and there are some gems where one wouldn't expect to hear them. Very much "in the tradition," as Arthur Blythe used to put it.

The CD starts with an "Invocation" (have we been here before? maybe in a room down the hall) which burbles along pleasantly enough in a motif parallel to early Coltrane Quartet.

But then at about the five-minute mark, Blake leaps over the tonal trough he's been plowing into a higher gear. In answer the rhythm section (Mike Cain, keyboards; Christian McBride; bass; Chris Dave, drums) wigs all around him. Suddenly Blake is the one holding to the key signature, and everybody else seems hell-bent on tripping him up. They don't. Cool!

Blake also has an ear for standards (who else but the late Bill Evans would even go near "The Windmills of your Mind"?), but that isn't the only example. Cain's wise intro sets Blake up very nicely for a heartfelt "Pure Imagination" from Tony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Let's forget for now the recent Tim Burtonization of that lovely movie.

What I like most about this take isn't the moxie or the dreamy pace or the soft-hearted improvising (all of which is just right). It's Blake's slightly hoarse, rough-hewn tone. We have technicians aplenty, thanks. Now and again a tone that doesn't sound sandpapered to a fare-thee-well is very welcome. Ask Chu Berry or David S. Ware.

Elsewise on this recording (accompanied by a bonus CD, limited edition, of course, of remixes by Transdub Massiv, DJ Spinna, and Jahi Sundance) there's the title bit, a low-flame R&B meditation with tasty organ.

Cain is to be complimented for knowing enough not to sink every musical phrase in synth Dream Whip). Blake again eschews the spotlight to contribute to the feeling of the groove as opposed to showing off, something a lot of young players like Mark Turner and Sarah Manning are learning early, to their credit.

And there's also a flamenco-tinged "Pissarro's Floor" that somehow does not call up memories of Miles Davis's Spanish period. Some Fender bass is provided here by a very funky Reuben Rogers, and a high Blake squawk leads directly into a tart David Gilmore electric guitar break.

Again, very on. A differing take of "Invocation" closes us out here with elfin flute from Blake and Chris McBride's much woodier, all-encompassing bass work.

Kudos also for a solid cover of Johnny Griffin's "Dance of Passion," which features Josh Roseman, a fine trombonist who's played with Dave Douglas on occasion.

Specifically, Mr. Blake's music is not really my bag, but there's a voracious sense of detail at work here, and it's worth a week and a half's bus fare. Let's recall that NYC's prices are somewhat higher!


By Kenneth Egbert