On Johnathan Blake

This review appears in the March 2012 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.

Johnathan Blake
The Eleventh Hour (Sunnyside)

By David R. Adler

It’s always worth noting when a respected sideman ventures out as a leader. But debuts are sink-or-swim affairs, so what of Johnathan Blake’s The Eleventh Hour? It swims, and thanks primarily to a sideman’s intimate knowledge that the right players, the right chemistry, means everything. The core band features Mark Turner on tenor and Jaleel Shaw (Blake’s fellow Philadelphian) on alto, a gripping front line. The rhythm section, with pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street, couldn’t be more seasoned. The special guests, making every moment count, are Tom Harrell, Robert Glasper, Grégoire Maret and Tim Warfield.

As the prodigious drummer in bands led by Harrell, Kenny Barron and many others, Blake has developed sharp leadership instincts. He’s also got a confident composer’s hand: seven of the 10 tracks on The Eleventh Hour are Blake originals, with a remarkable expressive range. “Rio’s Dream” and “Time to Kill” are infectiously melodic, while “Of Things to Come” is a fierce piano-less burner. “No Left Turn” alternates slow-churning swing with a flowing, enigmatic 5/4 section, pitting Turner against Warfield’s second tenor. “Clues,” a fast and funky variant of Monk’s “Evidence,” includes cage-match trading between Shaw and Turner and a brilliant acoustic-electric turn by Hays. The leadoff title track grooves patiently and mysteriously, built on Glasper’s swirling Rhodes and the timbral blend of saxes against Maret’s harmonica.

There’s no mistaking Harrell’s warm, assertive sound from the first seconds of “Blue News,” a Harrell-penned E-flat minor blues. Or Turner’s spiraling, upward-reaching lines on the intro cadenza of “Dexter’s Tune,” a well-chosen Randy Newman instrumental from the film Awakenings. Maret and Glasper return for the closer, the pianist’s own “Canvas,” which has both a melancholy air and the feel of a perfect pop hook. Turner played on the original version from Glasper’s 2005 Blue Note debut, but here it is Maret, battling the pianist in a round of trades, who stands out.

Blake’s rhythmic footprint, of course, is everywhere in this music. His playing is furious but never overpowering, always alive with inner detail, galvanizing the players in his midst. But in a set spilling over with virtuoso performances, what’s most compelling is the musical storyline and clarity of purpose, which makes The Eleventh Hour a work of spotless integrity.

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