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An interview with saxophonist Michael Blake

On the eve of a West Coast tour with Slow Poke, the coming release of their album, "Redemption" (Intuition) and his forthcoming second solo release, "Drift", New York saxophonist Michael Blake talks about the roots of his life in music and the way the branches have sprouted along the way. Amongst his many activities, the Canadian-born Blake is leader of the groups Michael Blake's Free Association (which recorded Blake's debut solo CD, "Kingdom of Champa") and his latest venture, Malassippi, is a Composer-In-Residence with NYC's Jazz Composers Collective; is one-quarter of Slow Poke; part of Ben Allison's Medicine Wheel and Allison's trio; a long-time member of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, and is part of Steven Bernstein's Diaspora Soul, S'killit, and the Chris Brown/Kate Fenner Band. One of his most recent projects is composing for the Sundance Film Festival's Independent Film Channel TV programming.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE SAXOPHONE?

MICHAEL BLAKE: I tried my friend's dad's soprano one day, I remember it very clearly and I really, really liked it. I could play a scale in about two minutes; I had a sound and I kind of half figured it out, which was really a thrill cause I had tried piano and violin lessons and I didn't do so great cause I didn't really get into practicing. But I think I had an oral fixation... I think [it] was really connected to doing something with my mouth. But I was refused by my brother, who was playing alto and was not about to have another saxophone player [in the house], even though his was louder and bigger than mine. So I was forced into clarinet, and it turned out to be a really great thing because it's harder than saxophone, technically. I was having hard times at school, I just started skipping out. I was a very confused young kid and I'd just go home and play the clarinet all day. I'd play along with records and try to figure it out. I was an outcast in school and I would eat lunch outside of the cafeteria and then go to the library and read books about jazz. I read "Chasin' the Trane" and then soon after that I got a [tenor] . And then I was totally hooked. I played it and I knew the minute I played it that [that] was what I was gonna do the rest of my life.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PLAY TWO SAXES AT ONCE (SOPRANO AND TENOR)?

MICHAEL BLAKE: Roland Kirk. He definitely changed my world in about '92 or '93. He sort of got through to the pop world, back in the '70s; he really crossed over. But his performance was on a whole other level from any other kind of jazz. It was amazing. It was beyond the fact that he was blind and could circular breathe [and play] three saxophones, cause a lot of his music is not that good, I think, in a lot of the recordings. And some of the things are amazing, but he's totally 100 percent about it. He does it his way and that's the only way, and that's right up there with Ornette and Coltrane and all those other guys, all those visionaries. I didn't like the sound [I got from playing two saxes] very much, so I took a key clamp which holds down the keys that's supposed to save the pads, and I closed all the fingerings [on the soprano] that you would [play] with the left hand, which let me get an open G... but on the tenor, I had a note called an open G, which was basically the same fingering, so I ended up with the exact same scale as a saxophone, but [by using] two saxophones. So I'm still playing the left hand on the tenor and the right hand on the soprano... some notes I can't get, so I have to put like, dollar bills and things and whatever I can in to open certain notes for certain songs that need to be in a different key. It's limited, but it's a beautiful sound and I know there's a couple other guys who do it, but, personally, I've never heard anyone do it as good as me [laughs]. It's something I feel really proud of, but I'm completely lame compared to Roland Kirk. [Once] I thought I'd try three, and I couldn't deal. It really is remarkable [that Kirk did it]. Someday I'm going to get it together, though, I just need someone to help me put 'em all in my mouth.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: IT MUST BE A REALLY SATISFYING FEELING TO BE ABLE TO HARMONIZE WITH YOURSELF, WITHOUT PEDALS OR WHATNOT, JUST PURELY ORGANICALLY.

MICHAEL BLAKE: [Enthusiastically] Ya, ya, it's a really cool thing. It was also this whole vision I had in a way, when I was just hearing Roland Kirk; suddenly realizing there was all these sounds I could get on the instrument, these great tones and funny noises and multiphonics and things that a lot of people had experimented with, but I thought there was a lot of new ground there to be explored...

JAZZREVIEW.COM: HOW DID YOU HOOK UP WITH JOHN LURIE?

MICHAEL BLAKE: I played in a fusion-funk band [and] that's where [he] heard me. I totally owe [another ex-Vancouverite] Scott Harding for getting me in the Lounge Lizards, cause he told me John was checking me out, listening to me play and he's like, 'He's at the bar, you should go talk to him'. So I went to the bar and I overheard him say he really hated the band but liked my tone, and I said, "Thanks" and he turned around and we met and we were friends after that. He started calling me all the time and we had a relationship on the phone for quite some time before we even played together. So, that was definitely a break - that was my break right there, being in the right place at the right time... I met him in the winter of '89 and did a couple things for him before I really knew I had the gig. We toured a lot early on. The first gig [I did] was a couple nights at the Knitting Factory. It was really amazing. Andrew Hill played before us with Greg Osby and Gary Thomas, and those guys were playing their tails off. After, they were upstairs packing up and they were laughing at John, about how he was playing. They were kind of rolling their eyes and stuff and I thought it was funny, like, 'This guy's already been around 10 years longer than you guys'. It was an interesting moment for me, cause I realized I was leaving the world of jazz snobbery and going into a whole other thing about music, something that was going to lead me on a new path about music that wasn't about what I saw those guys doing with Andrew Hill, which was great, but... after that I suddenly realized I was liberated from the world of chops and ego jazz. It was great.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: IF YOU HAD TO PICK A GENRE FOR YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD IT BE? ARE YOU A JAZZ MUSICIAN?

MICHAEL BLAKE: [I'm] definitely an improviser. I love jazz and I love the whole tradition of it, and I'm really into the tradition. I listened only to Coltrane for years and after that I just said, 'No more of this. I'm not coming from this school. I want to be my own man and I want to find myself'. I realized that, as much as I loved to play like Coltrane, and I found myself finding great ideas and being inspired to play like that, I found that I loved the way Stan Getz played and I liked the way Coleman Hawkins played and I liked all sorts of guys, and I liked Ornette on tenor [laughs] ... you know, all of a sudden it's like, 'There's a whole world of really neat stuff, why am I just checking out this one bag?' Wayne Shorter was really good for me for that kind, cause he was really coming out of Coltrane in a lot of ways, but he also is so interesting and brilliant and compositionally, he was the guy. I just got totally into him. And Sam Rivers is like that: very, very smart. I can see why Tony Williams had those guys on his first record; they really were like the most interesting players at that time.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: HAVE YOU FOUND YOUR VOICE, ONE THAT YOU'RE HAPPY WITH?

MICHAEL BLAKE: Ya, I feel I did actually, I think in the last few years. I think I really did find it around '93-'94 I figured out what I wanted to do and I've just been developing it.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: AND THAT CAME FROM JUST GOING ALONG?

MICHAEL BLAKE: It all runs together, and that's what it's about, because... everyone that you play with sort of requires you to play differently and listen differently and react differently. Somebody said something the other day that was really wonderful, which was it's not about necessarily giving, it's about giving up, and I thought that was a really, really nice way to see it because you do; you play with some people and you go, 'Oh, okay, with this person, I'm not gonna play this way, I'll play this way and complement them and make them sound good.' I'm going to accompany people all the time, even when I'm playing a solo. I don't want the drummer to think that he only has to support me, I'm gonna support him and let him know that I'm listening to what he's doing and I'm trying to go with him, and that happens with everybody all the time, and that's pretty hard to do. It takes a lot of technique and it takes a lot of courage to think like that. Like, Tony Scherr always refers to certain types of music - whether it's Dylan or Willie Nelson or one of our friends - about people who do something courageous and brave. He loves to make these references, and I think they're apt because taking chances is what it's about and that's pretty scary when you're up there in front of an audience.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: IT TIES YOU ALL TOGETHER.

MICHAEL BLAKE: Ya, definitely. And everyone... all the mature musicians that help me find a way of playing... a lot of them don't play tenor saxophone, which is a hard instrument; it's really, really hard to find your own thing on. The guitar is kind of like that, too, but even with the guitar you have a lot of different options, but it's pretty tough, too. Everything is hard to find your own voice on, but it's just great for me. It had a lot to do with not listening to the same thing over and over, not getting stuck in one thing... Whatever gets your mojo workin', you just gotta go, you gotta do it. I'm in a world where the improvisers are... there's geniuses around every corner, and you just hope it rubs off on you and you keep growing. The thing I'm afraid of is not changing, that's the only thing I'd ever be afraid of as a musician, like, [puts on goofy hepcat voice] 'It's okay if I play this lick again cause it would sound really good with this chord change, it might sound hip. I'm so hip. I'm so cool.' It's like, God! Gimme a break! So boring to hear someone play like that all the time.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: "KINGDOM OF CHAMPA. CAN YOU SAY WHERE THAT EXPERIENCE SITS WITH YOU NOW, HOW IT'S EVOLVED FOR YOU, CAUSE THAT'S SOME PRETTY HEAVY STUFF YOU WENT THROUGH?

MICHAEL BLAKE: Going [to Vietnam] was a really big experience for my wife, cause she hadn't been back in 20 years, and I saw it through her eyes, a lot of it. It was intense. I was just thinking today... wondering when I was going to... I was thinking I'd very much like to play it as a Jazz Composers Collective project, but then I thought, 'No, I think I'll wait a while. I think I've got other things I need to do first before I play that music again live.' I just feel really proud of that record, and I often wonder whether I'll do anything as good as that, in terms of the... it's going to be hard to do something as emotionally telling. I know there's a thing there, there's a lot of heartache and real stuff on that record, and Teo (Macero, producer) was very aware of that, and brought something really precious to the whole project. I couldn't have asked for a better experience and it hurts... it's still... it's very emotional, and actually I just saw (now ex-wife) Thu recently, and she moved into a place out here in Brooklyn, and I find... I get very upset. I have a lot of feelings towards her, and we're still very close, which is great to have [with] somebody, but that's our baby. Nine years together and that's what I could do with it. I'm glad I was able to do something with our... with that love we had together, that companionship. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't have made it.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: WOULD YOU SAY THAT'S AS CLOSE TO YOUR SOUL AS YOU'VE GOTTEN IN MUSIC, TO THIS POINT?

MICHAEL BLAKE: Ya, I think so. I think the stuff I'm doing now is, I think I'm kind of getting back into that with Malassippi a lot. I think everything I've done is just as sincere.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: DO YOU EVER LISTEN TO IT?

MICHAEL BLAKE: I haven't in a while. I don't think I could listen to it right now.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: DESCRIBE THE MUSICAL PERSONALITIES OF THE OTHER THREE SLOW POKERS.

MICHAEL BLAKE: Tronzo's like, half-love guru, and half soldier of fortune. Tony is a kid in a candy store. Everything about him is about music, 24/7. And Kenny is very quiet and just really original. He's probably the most unique person, original person I've ever met in my life. Like the other day, he was like, 'I'm making a model!' and I walked up and he was making a model airplane and it was really beautiful. And he's always doing cool stuff. Hhe'll walk up to you and go, 'You know what's great, man? Buying records!' I want to grow up and be like Kenny, you know! His energy's unbelievable.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: OKAY, NOW DESCRIBE YOU.

MICHAEL BLAKE: I... I... I am probably the most... organized... [laughing] of the four of us. No, not organized, Tronzo's very organized. I don't know. God, it's really hard to describe oneself. Um, ah... I'm probably the annoying lead singer. It's hard for me to think of myself in that band... We all just take on each others' roles so much. I never feel there's a moment that Kenny's not as important as me and it's like my solo as much his solo, and it's such a great, four-way thing and it's developed so much in the last few years. I try to keep a vibe in the music and let that... like I said before, it's not about what you give, about what you give up - and that applies to me in Slow Poke, and [to] David, too. It's a hard gig to play. It's probably the hardest gig I ever made for myself. I think it's a real challenge for me.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: "REDEMPTION". THERE'S SERIOUS TENSION, BUT IT'S SUBTLE AND YOU DON'T REALIZE IT'S GRABBED AHOLD OF YOU. I WAS KIND OF WORKED UP AFTER LISTENING TO IT AND I DIDN'T REALIZE IT UNTIL AFTER I'D LEFT THE HOUSE AND GONE OUT INTO THE WORLD AND I COULDN'T FIGURE OUT WHAT WAS GOING ON. SLOW POKE'S DEBUT, "AT HOME" HAD A CERTAIN KIND OF TENSION, BUT IT WAS A LOOSER, MORE LAID-BACK THING.

MICHAEL BLAKE: It was an afternoon [to record 'At Home"]. It was such an easy and comfortable recording session. We were so unconscious. Everything was very quiet as well. You can hear the dog barking on 'Harvest', as a matter of fact. [Recording "Redemption"] in Germany, we were all locked up in a house together, and it was more tense. It was exhausting, we worked really hard, especially Tony, who really did most of the production work. So, ya, him and the engineer worked really long hours and we put a lot into it ...it's interesting you hear the tension in it, cause it all sounds so... "Cilantro" is so hilarious, it's so funny - I crack up. The melodica comes in and it's sort of out of tune and I'm actually making mistakes on it, and there's this hilarious sample of this huge drum going boom in the funniest places, and then Tronzo's baritone guitar comes in and it's like some mad circus of acid heads or something. It has this wonderful humor but also this incredibly romantic thing happening in it, and going from something like "God Don't Never Change" to "Dear Ear", a really bluesy New Orleans [sound], almost sounding like The Meters there on one tune. But as you can hear, we're doing what we do, and taking a lot of chances and having a good time, and at the same time I think we're pushing the material to kind of the edge. We all feel really happy with it. I think we all feel like there's nothing like doing it at Tony's house, [though] we want to do the next one there and stick with that.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: OKAY, THE WEIRD SOUND AT THE END OF THE RECORD [WHICH, FOR THE RECORD, I FIGURED OUT, BUT WILL LEAVE FOR THE PUBLIC TO GUESS FOR THEMSELVES].

MICHAEL BLAKE: When we delivered it to the record company, they said there's a very strange noise at the end, we think it's a digital noise on the master. We were like, 'Nope, you're not listening carefully enough, are you? Listen again'. And they're like, 'You mean you want it there?' And we're like, 'When you tell me what it is, you can put the record out'. Maybe that's why they're taking so long cause they never figured it out, what the hell we were up to. That was our little tribute to who we called 'Count'. There was this guy who ran the studio, Claus, and then there was Claus the engineer, but the Claus who ran the studio was very vampire-like and very German: [effects gentle, yet somehow disturbing accent] 'Ve have 250 kinds of bread in Germany, 467 kinds of cheese and 90 types of beer in zis region alone'. And he was the kind of person to say, 'I don't like the way Miles Davis's records sound from the '50s, an audiophile to the nth degree, so we kinda called him Count Claus. It was pretty funny. So that was just to give everyone a little taste of where we were for the week in Germany.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: THE PLAYING SPEED, AND THE SPEED REFERENCE IN THE BAND NAME - ARE THEY ANY SORT OF ANSWER TO THE FASTER, FURIOUS NYC CHOPS THING? DID YOU PURPOSELY WANT TO SLOW THINGS DOWN TO HEAR WHAT'S GOING ON?

MICHAEL BLAKE: No, I think it's just that those were the songs and the way we did them, and we tended to take things and slow them down. I guess so... if someone sees it as a reaction, and they're reacting to that, then that's what they'd see, that's great, that's fine, I don't care. I think, especially on the new record, "Jar of Hair", [and] there's maybe one other tune that gets into some pretty nitty gritty tempo stuff... but even [from "At Home"] "Rockin in Rhythm" was pretty funky and had a lot of notes splashed around, but, ya, it's definitely a slow groove band.

MICHAEL BLAKE DISCOGRAPHY

1990 Rock, Love and Understanding (Electra) 1991 The Lounge Lizards - "Live in Berlin" Vol. I (Intuition) 1992 Justin Warfield - "My Field Trip To Planet 9" (Warner Bros.) 1993 The Lounge Lizards - "Live in Berlin" Vol.II (Intuition) 1994 Rusty Cloud - "Walkin' the Night" (Moon Street) 1995 The Repercussions (Warner Bros.) 1996 "Get Shorty" soundtrack (Verve) 1997 S'killit - "Blue Fever" (Moon Street) Release TBA 1997 "Kingdom of Champa" (Intuition INT 31892) 1998 The Lounge Lizards - "Queen of all Ears" (Strange & Beautiful Music) Spring 2000 Slow Poke "Redemption" (Intuition Music) Summer 2000 Michael Blake - "Drift" (Intuition Music)

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Michael Blake
  • Subtitle: Kingdom of Blake
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