“The AMT Roam 1 is by far the best sound I’ve ever heard for my saxes in live performance. The expanded range of movement provided by a wireless mic also gives me the room to play rather than negotiating my position in front of a mic stand for the first ti”
– Ron Blake
If it’s true that you can judge a man by the company he keeps, then Ron Blake would certainly earn the esteem of music fans everywhere….not only from jazz audiences that have come to respect his work with such artists as Roy Hargrove, Art Farmer and, most recently Christian McBride, but from fans of Latin rock, who know him as a featured soloist with Grammy nominees Yerba Buena, and from the alternative music crowd for his performances with Meshell Ndegeocello’s Spirit Music Jamia.
Blake brings the same eclectic approach that has caught the attention of such a wide array of musical talents to his solo work, the culmination of which is now on display on his newest CD for Mack Avenue Records, “Sonic Tonic.” Produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, “Sonic Tonic” traverses the multi-textured terrain of the jazz landscape, fusing funk, Latin and Caribbean rhythms with the more traditional jazz sound that marked last year’s critically acclaimed release, “Lest We Forget.” Joining Blake on “Sonic Tonic” are some familiar names –Christian McBride and Reuben Rogers on bass, Michael Cain on keyboards, Terreon Gully, Chris Dave and Greg Hutchinson on drums, Gilmar Gomes on percussion, Pedro Martinez on congas, David Gilmore on guitar, a horn section that features Mack Avenue label-mate Sean Jones on flugelhorn as well as Josh Roseman on trombone, Vincent Chancey on French horn, and Marcus Rojas on tuba.
It is Blake’s ongoing collaboration with acclaimed bassist Meshell Ndegeocello that adds a distinctive dimension to the eleven tracks that comprise the musical elements of “Sonic Tonic.” The two musicians first met eight years ago when both were performing at the North Sea Jazz Festival (Blake was working with Roy Hargrove, Ndegeocello touring in support of her first release. Ndegeocello says that she watched as Blake played the entire set on his knees (“I couldn’t hear the monitor any other way, ” he explains) and was so impressed that she later approached him in the lobby of their hotel. Several years later, the two collaborated on MCA’s “Red Hot + Riot” compilation dedicated to the music of Fela Kuti, and when Meshell formed her eclectic Spirit Music Jamia, she invited Blake, who was at that time a member of the Christian McBride Band, performing with Yerba Buena, and cultivating his own burgeoning solo career, to join. He willingly obliged, and later returned the favor by asking her to produce his second solo project for Mack Avenue Records, which is also Ndegeocello’s first full-length venture as a producer.
“Sonic Tonic” opens with an original composition, “Invocation, ’ a multi-textured piece that sets the stage for the expansive set that follows. Its somewhat chant-like tone is immediately offset by the spirited “Chasing The Sun, ” which is propelled by Michael Cain’s radiant keyboards and supported by drummer Terreon Gully’s spirited beats. Given Blake’s touring schedule, it’s no wonder that “Chasing The Sun” was inspired by his experiences on the road. “When you’re traveling, no matter how gloomy the weather is or how stressful the working conditions, once you’re above the clouds it always seems so peaceful, ” he says. “The sun is our source of energy and I wanted to capture how it feels to always be connected to that energy.” The following track, “Your Warm Embrace, ” is so brief as to be merely a calming coda, easily capturing the sense of peace that accompanies a return home.
The first of Sonic Tonic’s three non-original tracks, Johnny Griffin’s “Dance of Passion” is translated into a mysterious, hypnotic tapestry, with a pattern composed of saxophone, French horn, trombone and tuba woven over a vibrant background of percussion and drums, while the CD’s second cover, the classic “The Windmills of Your Mind, ” takes the song’s familiar melody on a slow ride, with a spare arrangement that gently swings. “I wanted to create the dreamy, nostalgic mood of the song’s lyrics using only the melody, ” explains Blake. “My solo is an open-ended vamp, and it’s brief, but it locks the song together.”
Blake says that the funky groove of “Shades of Brown, ” can be credited to drummer Terreon Gully’s contributions, which took the tune in an entirely different direction from its original conception as it evolved. That organic development also inspired the song’s title – “Meshell felt that it was earthy in nature, so the color brown came to mind, ” continues Blake. The CD’s title track captures the essence of the project, at once effervescent and sensual, with funky riffs, initially introduced rhythmically, that come to be alternately delivered by Blake on tenor sax and David Gilmore on guitar. “All the music that we chose for the CD is there because it feels good, and ‘Sonic Tonic’ is a perfect expression of that ability to uplift you.”
“Tom Blake (Revisited)” revisits the song, dedicated to his dad, from Blake’s debut solo CD, with a new, vigorous arrangement. ” The original version has more of a Latin feel because my father really loves that music, but this one is brighter, with more of a calypso feel, ” says Blake. “Pure Imagination, ” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, is a duet between Blake on tenor sax and Michael Cain on piano, “Even though I’m not playing a lot on this song, you can hear everything that I’m about musically in it, ” he says. The ballad, “Pissarro’s Floor, ” is an intricate and sultry air that, according to Blake, is an invitation to “come along with me and see where it goes.” Its position nearly at the close of the CD is appropriate, he says, because “it’s indicative of one of the compositional directions that I’m heading towards.”
“Sonic Tonic’s” bonus track is a reprise of the CD’s first track, “Invocation, ” delivered with a different rhythmic groove featuring Pedro Martinez (Yerba Buena) on congas. Subtitled “Dance of Fire, ” Blake says the track is the “dance ceremony version of ‘Invocation.’”
Born on September 7, in the Virgin Islands, Blake began playing guitar at age 8, switching to alto sax by the time he was 10. After graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, Blake entered Northwestern University in Illinois, where he received the Presidential Award for outstanding artistic and academic achievement.
His early dreams of a professional career in jazz would begin to take shape in the summer of 1987, when he was in St. Thomas teaching in summer music programs. At the 1st Virgin Islands Jazz Festival, he met and played with Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Bartz, Jimmy Hamilton and others. It had a tremendous impact on him, and he subsequently received an NEA grant to study with Gary Bartz.
Upon graduating from Northwestern, Blake immersed himself in Chicago’s jazz scene; during this time he also began taking interest in the tenor sax, working with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and performing with such artists as Nancy Wilson, Louis Bellson, and Clark Terry. His main influence and mentor during this period was the legendary saxophonist Von Freeman, who was very encouraging to the young musician.
In 1990, Blake left Chicago and moved to Tampa, Florida, where he worked as Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida and performed with the Florida Symphony Orchestra, while making frequent trips to New York City, where he sat in with Branford Marsalis at the Village Vanguard, as well as pianists Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Kirkland. After permanently relocating to New York City in 1992, Blake joined the Roy Hargrove Quintet (through 1997, ) and quickly became one of the most sought after jazz saxophonists on the scene. He has performed at most major jazz festivals and clubs internationally, and has been fortunate to share the stage with such jazz greats as Johnny Griffin (special guest on Ron’s debut solo release), Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Haynes (Blake spent four years in his band, ) and Ray Brown. Blake has made over 30 jazz recordings with his contemporaries as well as legendary artists such as Benny Golson, Jimmy Smith, Arthur Taylor, and Art Farmer, playing as a member of the Art Farmer Quintet for seven years
In 1998, Blake and drummer Dion Parson released 21st Century (Tahmun), which received worldwide critical acclaim. As leader of the Ron Blake Quartet, which featured Shedrick Mitchell on piano, Rueben Rogers on bass and Greg Hutchinson on drums, Blake released their debut recording, Up Front and Personal, in 2000, which included eight highly original tunes that amplified his Caribbean heritage and formative years in Chicago.
In 2000, Blake joined the Christian McBride Band, with which he continues to perform and record. In 2003, he signed with Mack Avenue Records and released Lest We Forget, produced by McBride, on which he celebrated the classic Hammond B-3 organ sound, performing songs made famous by three of the legendary musicians associated with that instrument: Stanley Turrentine, Charles Earland, and Grove Washington, Jr. While continuing to tour and record with McBride and pursue his burgeoning solo career, Blake has also found time in the past year to record and tour with Grammy-nominees Yerba Buena, and perform with Meshell Ndegeocello’s Spirit Music Jamia.
The results of Blake’s ongoing quest for interesting musical dialogue can be heard on Sonic Tonic. As he says, “Music is a conversation, and now, more than ever before, I’ve found my voice.”