New CD: Motherless Child


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One of the first improvisers and composers to adapt to the modern era the groundbreaking contributions Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith and other pioneering jazz violinists made to the legacy of an instrument primarily associated with classical and folk music, John Blake, Jr. has consistently created music that engages the heart, mind, body and soul.  With the release of Motherless Child, Blake also joins the distinguished list of jazz musicians and arrangers who have mined the rich repository of the African American Spiritual songbook and created new versions of these timeless and inspirational works — some solely instrumental and others featuring vocals — that pay righteous and reverent respect to the music’s illustrious heritage in a manner that is distinctively original and compelling.

The quartet Blake has been working with for close to a decade featuring pianist Sumi Tonooka, bassist Boris Kozlov and the violinist’s son Johnathan on drums is the core group featured on Motherless Child.  They are augmented on some tracks by Howard University’s jazz vocal group Afro Blue in a manner that recalls such jazz instrumental-vocal collaborations as arranger Duke Pearson’s classic “Cristo Redentor.”  The performances of “Go Down Moses,” I Want Jesus To Walk With Me,” “Nobody Knows (The Trouble I’ve seen)” and other classics truly reflect the spirit and passion of these sacred songs.  Pianist Mulgrew Miller guests on the album’s title track and “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me,” while pianist and vocalist Evelyn Simpson-Curenton is featured on her arrangement of “A Balm In Gilead.” Blake contributes a solo violin introduction to “A City Called Heaven” that is followed by a quartet version of this song that resonates with the power and passion one associates with another jazz master whose music was informed by spirituality, saxophonist John Coltrane. 

“Most of the Spirituals I chose are ones I felt would be most familiar to listeners,” Blake said, “and I myself remember crying as I listened to some of these songs as a child.  ’Nobody Know The Trouble I Seen’ was inspired by a deeply moving performance by Afro Blue of Gerri Allen's a capella arrangement of ‘O' Freedom’ that deeply moved me,” he continued. “’Hold On’ is a spiritual about perseverance that was also used as an ‘escape song’ to warn slaves to keep working or to ‘keep their hand on de plow’ until the time was right to flee. ‘A Balm in Gilead’ and ‘A City Called Heaven’ are both uplifting songs that speak of healing and a spiritual place where sorrows and pain cease to exist.  Both their words and their melodies remind African Americans of their struggle for spiritual and physical freedom and it is my hope that the world will remember how important these songs were historically to the survival of the human race,” Blake added. The violinist chose for the cover of Motherless Child a photo taken in Nagongera, Uganda, where he spent a week in September 2009 working with Covenant Mercies, a ministry whose mission is to support African children left orphaned by HIV/AIDS.  Blake’s involvement in this initiative is chronicled in the forthcoming documentary A Note of Hope by Citygate Films.

John Blake Comments on the Musicians on Motherless Child

I’ve been collaborating with pianist Sumi Tonooka for over two decades and over the years we’ve developed a deep friendship and a strong chemistry. In addition to being a virtuoso instrumentalist and a veteran performer she’s also an excellent composer and arranger who’s released several CD's under her own name. Sumi has also worked with Philly Joe Jones, Red Rodney, David “Fathead” Newman and Rufus Reid’s ensemble, among others. We have travelled and performed all over the country and the world and released the duo recording Kindred Spirits in 2000.

The presence of my son Johnathan Blake on drums adds more history and chemistry through our relationship as father and son and communication as two musicians. His contribution as a great team player in this ensemble has been a very powerful force in shaping the feel and excitement in the band's performances.   He and bassist Boris Kozlov play with incredible empathy due in part to their having worked together in the Mingus Big Band. Boris is a remarkable bassist and a virtuoso instrumentalist and accompanist and who seems to always know the correct feel for the right moment in the music.

Evelyn Simpson-Curenton’s arrangement and vocal work on “Balm in Gilead” still brings me to tears when I listen to her voice in the beginning of this song. Mulgrew Miller is one leading contemporary pianists of our time whose playing is always demonstrates masterful technique while being extremely inventive and expressive.

Finally, I can’t say enough about the superb singing on this recording by Howard University’s incomparable jazz vocal group Afro Blue.  Its members have great intonation and are extremely talented improvisers who proved flexible and versatile enough to blend in with the other musicians on this project.  Professor Connaitre Miller, the ensemble’s founder and music director, never fails to inspire her students to create first rate, professional music and I’m so pleased and honored to have been able to work them. My meetings and consultations with Professor Miller were invaluable during the process of writing these arrangements and her training of these talented students is unmatched by anything I’ve ever seen.