Like the promo shot of Michael Blake looking out at you with a snapshot strategically placed over his brain picturing a Vietnam street strewn with cart-pushing, moped- and bicycle-riding men, or the one inside of him looking every inch the North American with his sax case slung over his shoulder as he strolls past the Vietnamese woman cross-legged on the street with a cup in front of her, "Kingdom of Champa" is a meeting of disparate worlds. It's an exploration into the unknown that, as such, becomes an ingrained part of the explorer, changing, influencing and altering them without their necessarily being fully aware of it at the time, and whether they like it or not.
Canadian-born/10-year New York resident Blake spent a month in Vietnam a few years ago and this respectful record, permeated with a resigned sort of sadness, is a result of the experience and the influence the country and its people had on the saxophone player. Blake's songs on "Kingdom" are displays of soul-searching; the life-changing seriousness of putting oneself into a completely new situation, and of taking a risk for the expansion of the self is what seems to be represented here, and what marks this album as being the type serious music listeners search for. Which, of course means it's not going to break any sales records, but that's a whole other place to travel to, and one often unrelated to, and of no matter, when doing what's dictated by one's soul. There is a danger in attempting to blend cultural sounds not your own with those into which you were born. Such effort carries the risk of insulting, falling flat on your face, or merely being labeled a poor mimic. One of the most striking things about this disc is the immediate sense of respect, of paying homage not through imitation, but through indicating an openness to hear, learn and join in, as evidenced in track one when Blake's sax kicks in and a melding of the cultures fills the ears with elements of traditional meets modern. It's a seamless blend, an indication that different cultures can live in harmony, albeit one punctuated with occasional reminders that the two on their own - the slow, deliberate tone-upon-tone, layered, formal structure associated with the East and the punchy, bursting-at-the-seams, free, uninhibited energy of the West - remain distinct despite a desire to know each other. It comes across as a natural, unforced effort and that seems to be what makes it work, using elements of both to create something new. God, I love jazz.
The album opens with "The Champa Theme" tiptoeing out of the speakers with percussion and flute so quiet and distant, whispering with heavy-hearted restraint. Far away jungle sounds let you know you're going somewhere you've likely never been before. Blake's liner notes echo the tone of the music: "The spirit, beauty and hardship of these people would be the foundation for a suite of music I call 'Champa'."
Track two, "Dislocated in Natrang" is menacing, unsure, trouble - with those long, deliberate, heavy tones creating a setting of disturbance and unbalance. But then the dance of looseness and humor kicks in and there's a familiar sound. Echoes of The Lounge Lizards call as they kick into a very Lizard-esque slow-speed machine gun exchange of notes around the room then back out to the quiet, eerie jungle of dizzy goose tenor honks and creaky door guitar strains and the slow gasps of flute breaths in a push/pull of two worlds colliding, at first with force, before finally having to come to an agreement of acceptance, coexistence and then harmony. And big surprise that the Lizard antenna go up seeing as six of the 10 musicians here (including Blake) are in that group, and what with their individual playing styles and sounds being quite distinctive. It's a joy to hear so many of them featured here on Blake's first solo work, a treat in familiarity for the LL fan.
Then, just when you think you're heading off into uncharted territory as far as the eye can see, Blake pulls out "Folksong", of which he writes "[It's a] traditional Vietnamese song that I heard played by a blind guitarist who wandered the streets of Saigon. There seems to be a tradition of guitarist/singers quite similar to the delta blues style in the States." "Folksong" is a beautiful, gentle lullaby, almost hopeful in its sweetness and simplicity.
But, just as you've settled into its quiet peace, "Purple City" shocks you as only the harsh realities of urban life can; busy traffic toots blasting, outta-nowhere blares overtop consistently pushing pushy underlying underwater dulled bloop bloop ba-ow ba-ow - almost sound-effectsey and not entirely unlike the Alloy Orchestra soundtracking turn-of-the-century downtown life in the film "The Man With The Camera". Only it's unlike any downtown I've ever been to with those unsettling, jarring harmonies and occasional outbursts responding to the joyous order Bryan Carrott's warm vibes bring to the hustle and bustle that rides on the back of the repetitive day-in/day-out city drone you don't hear until you come back from time spent in less populous places. The slow-moving, laborious "Mekong" is trumpeter Steven Bernstein's moment in the sun where his crisp and brassy, mellow and subdued (yes, all at once) wa-wa muted tone makes me ache to hear him live somewhere in between this place where downtown New York meets Vietnam. And what a crazy idea this all is, but it works. It has to because these musicians are so open and adventurous and play from the heart. And there's obviously some deeply felt experiences captured on "Kingdom of Champa".
But wait - we're not done with our adventure yet. "Hué is Hué" starts out with a spectacular percussive display using an array of brass and wooden percussive instruments that seem to be just begging to be struck by the confidently rhythmic hands of Billy Martin. The sense of deliberateness in the beats strikes as a direct contrast to the sprawling foray into the out-of-control squawk growling of Blake's tenor that cuts off almost as abruptly as it entered in the first place.
Coming to a close as softly as it started, "Kingdom of Champa" slips away quietly with a sweet soprano-sax-over-guitar composition called "Perfume River", a beautiful accepting, knowing ballad that sounds like coming home to a self you maybe didn't know before, but actually feels more like you anyway. Blake's next effort should be out later this year. Also expect a new disc this year from Slow Poke, the quartet he's in with Tronzo, Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson.