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Michael Blake: Downbeat Magazine Interview

Collective Souls

Formed in 1992, the New York-based Jazz Composer's Collective (JCC) has been a nexus for musicians looking to further their creative explorations and to perform their works in concert with their peers. One of those who benefited from the Collective is saxophonist and composer-in-residence Michael Blake, whose second project as a leader, Drift (Intuition), got a long-overdue U.S. release April 4. (The CD was released in Germany last year.)

"The Collective was very important in the creation of Drift, because a lot of the music was developed with members of the organization," says Blake.

In addition to leading the group Free Association, which performs on Drift, Blake heads the smaller ensemble Slow Poke and is a member of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards. Drift features an expanded Free Association, whose core has JCC artistic director Ben Allison on bass, drummer Matt Wilson, guitarist Tony Scherr, pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Peck Allmond, and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein.

Blake's creative involvement with the Collective's musicians took a significant turn in 1993, when he wrote "The Creep," a composition that appears on Drift.

"It was one of the first things I wrote for Free Association," the saxophonist recalls. "Up until that time, I had been a really conservative player, although I probably did not realize it. When I started playing with these musicians, it opened my mind to really creative and imaginative writing. "

Equal parts Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, "The Creep" is a big, bold brushstroke that traverses a dramatically wide conceptual canvas. The piece is performed by an 11-piece ensemble featuring the Free Association musicians (Drift was recorded in two sessions, one with a larger group of musicians and one with a smaller group). "The Creep's" big-band arrangements provide a reverent nod to the past, while the musicians' exhortations frequently denote their devotion to avant-garde self-expression.

More than anything, the music heard on Drift is jazz created in the moment. "It's not retro; this is music made by guys who are pushing their boundaries," says Blake. "It is a fusion record, but one made with primarily acoustic instruments. It is about the personality of the musicians, not about how well I play or how clever my concept is."

As jazz is a documentation of a musician's experiences, Drift is a snapshot of the musical partnerships its creator has formed over nearly a decade. "It is about something beautiful and precious to me," says Blake. "It is about the listener sharing in the experiences of the musicians."

Steve Graybow, Jazz Blue Notes, Billboard - April 14, 2001