Amor de Cosmos CD cover

Michael Blake Sextet

Amor de Cosmos

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Songlines Records

Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year in the 2002 DownBeat critics poll, Michael Blake has been a resident of New York for almost 20 years - but he grew up in Vancouver, and on a visit to his hometown in 2005 he organized two gigs with somewhat younger players from the jazz and creative music scene, most of whom he had not played with before. The upshot is this all-Canadian sextet featuring classical/new music/Latin percussionist Sal Ferreras and several of Canada's most acclaimed and forward-looking jazz musicians improvising on Michael's wide-ranging compositions (there are also two highly expressionistic improv duets between Michael and Chris Gestrin).

Intrigued by reading about the life of 19th century British Columbia newspaperman and politician William Alexander Smith, who renamed himself Amor de Cosmos, Michael was inspired to re-explore his roots and forge new musical connections. It's another new departure in a career devoted to revitalizing his own playing and composing by drawing broadly on the whole history and resources of the music as well as on music of other cultures. As a long-time member of the Lounge Lizards and co-leader of Slow Poke, Michael developed an approach that valorized funk, the blues and pop music, as well as paying tribute to the saxophone greats of swing, bop and free jazz, by combining old school elegance and lyricism with downtown eclecticism and innovation. On his subsequent records as leader he has also worked with musical ideas from Africa, the Caribbean and Vietnam.

Here "The Wash Away" has a joyful African groove, but with a twist - the A section is in 11/8. Creating these change-ups allows new things to happen: "I personally find most jazz 'under imagined.' The artists might play great solos but after a few tunes you hear the same rhythms and systems in play. By changing the formulas in my compositions I get inspired to come up with new ideas as a soloist and arranger. But I like rhythm and melody, so after a while I find any 'method' too static....I love to improvise without any written music, but again it would become boring after a while. I'd miss playing a good standard, blues, or through-composed piece. Now that doesn't mean I don't practice and study and keep it together because I take my jazz history very seriously."

"I feel very satisfied that I wrote this music, some of which is very different from my previous work," Michael adds. Indeed, several of the more highly composed pieces (including "Paddy Pie Face" and "Temporary Constellation") seem like moves towards the realm of contemporary/new music, but Michael always leaves plenty room for improvisers to stretch out in solos and duos. The unusual instrumentation offers novel possibilities for voicings, bringing for example a witty, brilliantly executed free time duet between Sal on marimba and Chris on prepared piano in "So Long Seymour." Despite rather limited time together before the recording, the band really jells. In part this is because most of these players have such a long shared history together: Andre and Dylan are members of Chris' trio and the two of them plus Brad are part of Chris' Stillpoint project (Songlines SA1540); Brad was part of the international quintet Dylan organized on The Definition of a Toy (SA1554) and Dylan and Andre are in Brad's long-running quartet, etc.). Combine their fluent interaction with the challenges Michael sets them (and himself), and the result is a record that revels in creative interplay and speaks with its own unique accent.

Amor de Cosmos might suggest a wildly romantic "Lover of the Universe," but a more accurate translation would be "Love of Order." There's both heart and intellect in these grooves, and more than a touch of insouciance to lighten the proceedings. For audiophiles, the hi-res recording and multi-channel mix add further texture and dimension.