If you are on Blue Note there is a certain responsibility. Do you come over like the Blue Note sound in your head? You probably know it like it's the back of your hand but you could go another path entirely. Drummer Johnathan Blake takes that sound-in-his-head path and fits in well with the label's historic legacy like it is a continuum by essentially using the language of hard bop which is one of the key ingredients of the sound. Begun with a drum solo – you'd guess Art Blakey would approve at that beginning – then a warm homage 'Homeward Bound (for Ana Grace)' to the daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene and Nelba Marquez-Greene cruelly killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, the vibes of Joel Ross like a shining vision in the arrangement.
With his quintet Pentad, Blake, heard live memorably by this blog at Ronnie Scott's with Ravi Coltrane in 2015, is here with the fine Garrettian alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, Ross, pianist and keyboardist David Virelles and bassist Dezron Douglas. Virelles on 'Rivers & Parks' using Rhodes electric piano takes the album deeper into its own world and there is a lot of overlapping tidal flow.
A handsome melody expressed by Wilkins and fine voicings in the arrangement are only part of the secret proprietorial sauce. 'Shakin' the Biscuits' is more avant-garde in the dialogue between Wilkins and Blake with Virelles quiet as he comps and there is a looseness here that opens into a bluesy theme with Wilkins again following the Kenny Garrett playbook like he's reading the paper and somehow he has jumped into its pages, become the story and now quite naturally is doing a shared interview with the Miles icon. 'Abiyoyo' has a blissful African sense to it and again melody is a very strong element to this fine record. Later there's a stand-out tribute to Lawrence 'Lo' Leathers, a fellow drummer of Blake's, who was killed in a homicide two years ago. And right at the end there's a new version of Joe Jackson's 1982 pop hit 'Steppin' Out' also covered brilliantly by Kurt Elling on The Gate and Wilkins is like the singer, so communicative on sax, and it works more than well set up by a very abstract Virelles solo piano passage. What we get a sense of overall beyond the fact that Blake, certainly who is in the Jeff 'Tain' Watts mould stylistically, is a brilliant drummer. But he's also a fine writer and there is chemistry in the musicians that he has gathered around him. Stephen Graham
Johnathan Blake photo: David Ellis