Dan Blake’s “Da Fé”


BLAKE: Prologue – A New Normal. Cry of the East. Like Fish in Puddles.* Pain.* The Grifter. The Cliff. Doctor Armchair.* Da Fé.* Epilogue: It Heals Itself / Dan Blake, s-sax/t-sax; Carmen Staaf, pno/Fender Rhodes; Leo Genovese, synth/prophet/farisa/6-trak/Fender Rhodes/*pno; Dmitry Ishenko, bs/el-bs; Jeff Williams, dm / Sunnyside Records SSC 1616

This CD, scheduled for release on March 12, is one of those “statement” albums about world hunger and the false religion of catastrophic climate change (yes, we’re having climate change, but it’s far from catastrophic…the Earth has been through 100X worse in the past, try reading history), but if you just put all of that aside and listen to the music it’s really quite good.

The album opens with a free-form piano solo by Carmen Staaf that morphs through several keys (and key changes), which hold the listener’s interest. I really couldn’t pin down Staaf’s style; it seems to be completely his own, though based on several modern pianist of the past half-century. Towards the end we hear some electronic whooshing and a high whine in the background.

On Cry of the East, the full band comes in, playing a quirky melodic line set to an irregular meter. Blake plays excellent soprano sax, not only inventive but with good control of the instrument that reminded me of Paul Winter. The tune has several pauses and meter changes as it wends its way along. The quintet as a whole plays in an amorphic style that I found quite intriguing. At one point, it seemed to me that Blake had double-tracked himself playing both soprano and tenor in counterpoint against one another, a nice touch. Here, too, Staaf’s piano solo is a bit more conventional in form and layout but none the less interesting. Blake’s soprano solo combines scalar and serrated passages using thirds with little Coltrane-like flurries, and is likewise quite interesting.

Like Fish in Puddles opens with a drum roll before moving into the odd melodic line which is built around a few motifs, and Blake almost immediately begins filling in with improvisations. Here the musical pauses and tempo shifts are more obvious and extreme, yet he somehow makes it all fit together. The tempo comes way down for the piano solo by bassist Leo Genovese, who plays this instrument on four pieces in this set. After a piano and drum break, Blake switches to tenor, but again doubles himself, this time adding commentary on the soprano. An ocarina-type of instrument is also heard, probably one of the electronic things played by Genovese. Pain lives up to its title. It is a slow, very painful-sounding piece. There is no joy in Mudville on this one. Swirling synthesizer sounds float in the ether behind Blake’s free-form playing. Despite the use of a synthesizer, there’s a certain Mingus-like feel to this piece.

The Grifter is a really neat, uptempo piece, again with an unusual melodic line. I noticed, by this time, that the way Blake writes pieces he lets the lead line dictate the harmony rather than the other way around. Interesting, especially here where the chords sometimes change on every beat in a bar. Interestingly, it sounds here as if Blake has found a way to move the soprano sax down into the tenor range—either that, or he’s playing both instrument at once à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk. (He does indeed double-track himself for the screaming finale.)

The Cliff is perhaps the most interesting piece on the album, opening up with Blake’s multi-tracked tenor playing off-kilter serrated passages, then moving into a Monk-like line. Eventually the music becomes extremely complex as Blake continues to morph the meter and also starts playing his two saxes against one another slightly out of synch. This was, to my ears, almost a modern classical piece than a jazz one except for Staaf’s rather wild, slightly Monk-like piano. Bassist Isheknko finally gets a solo on this one, too, which stays within the parameters set by the lead line.

Doctor Armchair is also a rather wild piece, more free-form than like Mingus or Monk, with Blake on soprano and Genovese on piano flying around in the introductory passages. What little melodic line there is seems to be reserved for the break. Crazy, man! The title tune, Da Fé, is the “spaciest” piece on the album, using soft electronics along with Blake’s soprano and the rhythm section in a fast-tempoed but deliberately understated tune with generally soft volume but lots of outré improvisations before it settles down a bit as Blake plays a kaleidoscopic creation of his own.

The sound of water opens the Epilogue, followed by cymbal washes, then Blake’s soprano sax over the piano and bass. It’s a quiet, peaceful way of ending a very creative CD, with Blake’s soprano playing a repeated six-note lick while his tenor improvises in the foreground, becoming ever wilder and more complex.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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