Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound Review
By Sylvannia Garutch
Johnathan Blake has established himself as an adept and communitive drummer of his generation. His versatility as a musician has been sought out by Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, Tom Harrell, Hans Glawischnig, Avishai Cohen, Donny McCaslin, Linda May Han Oh, Jaleel Shaw, Chris Potter, Maria Schneider, Alex Sipiagin, Kris Davis, and countless other distinctive voices. Blake’s gift for composition and band leading reflects those collaborations along with years of live and studio experiences across a broad spectrum of projects and styles. Heralded by NPR Music as “the ultimate modernist,” he has been a frequent drummer on numerous Blue Note records over the past several years, including Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Breathe (2021), All in My Mind (2018), and Evolution (2016) and Kenny Barron’s Concentric Circles (2018), the latter whose trio Blake has been a vital member for nearly 15 years. Blake is now making his Blue Note records debut with Homeward Bound, his fourth album as a leader. Blake is joined by alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibist Joel Ross, bassist Dezron Douglas and David Virelles on piano, Fender Rhodes, and synthesizers.
“Homeward Bound (For Ana Grace)” is a growing composition that begins with Douglas laying down a catchy bass pattern for the song to develop upon. The melody is lyrical and expressed beautifully through a form that has various sections and feels. The use of odd time signatures gives the song an exciting flow and feel. Blake’s playing throughout the song is tasteful and communitive with the other players. Ross and Wilkins perform stirring trading of phrases that displays both performers’ skills and harmonic creativeness. Virelles’ solo is filled with arching arpeggios and interesting rhythmic devices. The ending is a rhythmic motif played by the ensemble while Blake solos around the theme. His drumming is balanced, melodic, and technically sound. Blake composed this composition for saxophonist Jimmy Greene’s daughter, Ana Grace, who lost her life at the tender age of six during the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012.
Joe Jackson’s electropop hit from 1982, “Steppin’ Out,” is given a new six feel and harmonic colors for the ensemble to explore. Opening with an impressive solo piano section, the song eventually becomes a beautifully orchestrated version of this pop melody. Wilkins takes his time in developing his solo, builds themes and rhythmic motifs to a rousing climax. Blake’s drumming is a swirl of sounds; his cymbal playing is exceptionally creative on this selection.
Johnathan Blake’s Blue Note Records debut, Homeward Bound, brings the jazz fan an album of modern feels, harmonic progressions, and playing. The ensemble is communitive, and all speak the same language. Though Blake is the leader on the date, each musician is given plenty of space to express themselves and contribute to the project’s uniqueness.