JazzReview: What’s up Ron! It is great to hang with you and share in your peaceful spirit. Being from St. Thomas, what special element does an island inhibitor have over those of us here on the rock and how does it influence your music?
Ron Blake: For me it’s all something that I grew up in. Musically, I had a huge interest in Calypso, Reggae and Steel Pan Music. That was the music that was playing on the radio besides Motown and Philly and that sort of stuff. My dad had a huge collection of jazz recordings and his favorite player was Cannonball Adderley. So, as a kid, when I came home and said that I wanted to play the saxophone, my dad bought me "Phoenix" which was Cannon’s second to last recording for my 10th birthday. He said that "If you are going to play saxophone, this is what it sounds like".
So I had a passion for music at a very early age. I started playing guitar when I was a kid and just always loved music. The island thing plays into it a lot more now because I really started to develop my style in my writing and I think that more of the elements of island music rhythmically, stylistically and in my playing as well tend to come out and be more prominent.
JazzReview: Well, I think it is obvious that the music celebrates him and I know that you have big love and respect for him so, tell me how you envision the man Tom Blake? Pops!
Ron Blake: Pops! You know, a man that loved life and really enjoyed music. I mean, his love of music was a passion that really fueled me early on. He was one of my biggest supporters, I mean my whole family was but, because my dad had this interest in jazz, I really heard the saxophone being a lead instrument as appose to a horn section or being in a Calypso band or R&B band. I started to hear a few things that came through with my brothers and sisters coming home from school on the main land like "Weather Report" and "The Black Birds and Grover Washington Jr. with "Mr. Magic." This was ’75 and ’76, around that time, and I kept going back to the Cannonball. I stumbled across, literally, Cannonball’s first record, "Presenting Cannonball," while going through my dad's stuff and I thought, "This is my dad’s stuff, this can’t be the same guy (Cannonball)." And then I finally got it. History, years and years of recordings and then, I started going into my dad’s record collection all of the time.
My dad represents all of that and he loves to dance, he loves music, he loves to have fun, so that is what I tried to recreate in the line and in the groove that I wrote for him.
JazzReview: Well, you know that you have this warm, peaceful spirit to your sound. Are you the "Jazz Minister of Peace and Love?"
Ron Blake: You know, I think music on some level should try to communicate peaceful energy and positive energy. So I try to bring that with me to the table every time I’m playing the music. That is really essential. I think first and foremost you want to try to connect with people on some level and give them something to reflect on and feel good about. That is just me. That is a part of what I share when I play my horn in front of an audience, when I play my horn for myself. I am trying to feel the vibration of that and just get myself connected to something that is greater than myself, and know that there is a universal consciousness that exist that helps us to grow in a positive way in all of life’s madness.
JazzReview: There is all this music...I mean from way back in the day with Monk, Miles, Trane, Mingus and all of the cats who all played and practiced at night, because that is such a serene time. I believe that time travels though a vortex and still exist on some universal strata, which you and all of the other cats of today tap into and immerse your souls in that energy.
Ron Blake: For all intensive purposes, I feel a part of what is happening when I’m playing it's more like I’m a conduit of some sort. I am just channeling. I mean, if I am really connected and I’m allowing things to happen and I’m not trying to let me ego dictate the direction of things; of course that helps when you have really great musicians playing with you and I have been blessed with that all of my career, thank God. But, when I am in that space and I am able to allow that energy to come through me, I am just trying to honor that gift that I have been given by sharing that energy with people.
JazzReview: Well, what I think is interesting about you, is that among those of us in the know, you are the tenor of choice among the lions, but what is it that those who do not yet know about Ron Blake have to discover?
Ron Blake: With the direction that I am taking now with my new release especially, I really want to focus a lot more on composition and incorporating what I do as an improviser into a sound that is exciting and interesting to people. I want to try to keep the music current and I want the music to relate in the present tense. You speak of the greats, and historically, we have all of that that we carry with us, but I think to that, we have an obligation to relate to our peers on this level right now.
JazzReview: I always worry about the word "Jazz" because it gets sliced up into so many different facets, that its validity may be compromised by things that may not fall under its umbrella?
Ron Blake: I think that it is all within the realm of jazz. I mean that is the beauty of this music. Forever, great artist were incorporating elements of music from different areas of music, from different cultures. That has always been going on. Especially a lot of the artists I have worked with, like Christian’s Band (Christian McBride). And just last week, we were on a double bill with Joshua (Joshua Redman) and his Elastic Band. People are trying to incorporate other elements of contemporary music, but still address the music and treat the music in an improvisational sense. That element of it is still in tact. This is our time, this is our generation and we are drawing upon our current references. So I don’t think in that sense that we are leaving the realm of jazz, but more or less trying to show listeners and people of our generation that it is all inclusive. It is just a different language, a different way of communicating and it is a different way of listening to music. It doesn’t have to be considered "Art Music" all of the time. A lot of what I do on "Sonic Tonic" is all about the groove. I want you to feel it first. You can listen to "Tom Blake" and, if you want to listen and say, "Hey, I really dug what he did on that solo," that’s cool. But, you can listen to it a couple of different ways and there is still space to treat it as a jazz composition.
JazzReview: Okay, Chris Dave, Greg Hutchinson, Terreon Gully, Christian McBride and Reuben Rogers are the premier bangers and thumpers in the industry today. What are you trying to say?
Ron Blake: I’m blessed!
JazzReview: Were each of these guys chosen for their differences and subtleties or were they chosen for those specific tracks?
Ron Blake: No, they weren’t chosen for particular tunes. The idea was to have the opportunity to have different combinations of rhythm players checking out different things and developing things differently--and just seeing how all of that would develop into the picture of the final product. The core of the music focused around what Terreon and Chris were doing, but there were a lot of things that developed from everyone’s participation. Everyone played on pretty much every tune, on one day or another.
That is an important part of the recording process that I had wanted to experiment with, but had never had a chance to do on my previous releases. I had always put together and ensemble rehearsed with that ensemble and then recorded. This gives me more of an opportunity to paint, more of an opportunity to hear which versions fit into the context of some of the other stuff that is going on.
JazzReview: Mack Avenue must have given you plenty of time in the studio?
Ron Blake: Mack Avenue was very gracious. I spent 5 days recording and about a week mixing.
JazzReview: The industry likes to label musicians and put them in a category. "Sonic Tonic" sounds like a continuous journey into the many "Windmills of Your Mind." What are some of the different elements and sounds that you incorporated for this album that are not just the sounds of jazz music?
Ron Blake: Really, it was all about finding the strongest melodies, finding the right grooves for them and then finding the right textures to really present each song as an entity within itself. And, I had a lot of liberties. I had three or four horn players to do background stuff. I had two different percussionist, you know, Jomar Gomez from Bahia and Pedrito Martinez from Cuba. And then amongst all of that, I have Michelle running around the studio saying, "Oh, I want a little bit of that now, let me hear this!" We just let things evolve organically and that is the sound of the record. Ultimately, what I was going for was a strong song and I wanted something, that someone to remember the melody. I wanted to find a way to let the sound of the song and the sound of my horn to really match the sound of the song.
JazzReview: To me, Michele Ndegeocello is a funk queen and yet, her influence on "Sonic Tonic," although heard, is not as overpowering as funk can sometimes be. The qualities are subtle, while the elements of jazz come through with clarity. Why was she the producer of choice?
Ron Blake: Well, I knew that Michelle was interested in helping me realize a project that reflected the things that I wanted to do compositionally. I knew that she was great at arranging music. I knew that she had a sense of sound that would allow me to put together a cross-section of sound that we talked about, that really reflected each individual song and that she was comfortable with that.
You know, she just has that nurturing spirit. And her love for music and being in a creative space just brought such a great clarity to the project. We have so much fun together. We have been working with her project "Spirit Music Jamia" now for over a year. I saw how she would add different elements to the music that would not alienate her audience soundwise, and still be open to listening to creative things. There was no other choice for it.
JazzReview: "Sonic Tonic," is it a drink, a potion, an elixir? Does it make the hair on your chest grow or is it a natural supplement for happiness?
Ron Blake: (Laugh) I have been asked that question a couple of times now. "Sonic Tonic" is a sound that makes you feel good. It is really a sound for your soul, truly. It is a sound that makes you want to move--something that gets inside of you, like something healthy or something positive.
(All of a sudden, the restaurant where I am conducting this interview starts playing Johnny Hartman singing with John Coltrane)
Oh, Johnny Hartman I’m sorry, I got a little distracted. (As we both listen for a moment) Oh yeah, see, that’s a "Sonic Tonic!" So that is essentially what it is. The sound of it gives you something. I’m trying to give you something. I’m trying to give you something positive, something peaceful, something inspirational in some way.
JazzReview: So on the album, there is a double douse of "Invocation." If it had side effects, what would they be?
Ron Blake: Well, "Invocation," as the word suggests, is a call. It’s a call, hopefully to self and something inside of you that is greater than self that guides us. And, I’m just inviting you into that.
The first version is like a Sunday morning spiritual kind of thing. The second version is more high energy and like the dance ceremony section of the ritual. So that’s kind of the idea of how the song came about. The nature of the song was based off of a chant. The bass of the song is a chant and the melody is the call. That is how I picture it.
JazzReview: What is the story behind "Pizzaro’s Floor?"
Ron Blake: The title of that came from Camile Pizzaro, who is the Grandfather of impressionism. He was actually born in the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas in the early 1800’s. And as a child, before he was sent to France to live with relatives and study there, the house that he grew up in, which is now a historical site, his parents let him draw with chalk on the floor of the house. His parents had the insight to let him express himself that way. And if you see some of the canvas’s that he eventually developed, they are huge!
You know I just think that here is this kid, just picture yourself as a young kid about 10 or 11 years old and your parents say, "Hey man, go for it! Express yourself and discover that creativity."
JazzReview: There is lots of freedom in that.
Ron Blake: Exactly! "Pizzaro’s Floor" is probably one of my favorite songs on the record, compositionally and sonically. We really let our engineer Ari have a lot of fun. If you go back and listen to that song, in and of itself, the engineer was just as much a part of making that song. It is a very simple melody. We don’t really even state the melody. If you listen carefully, the guitar player implies the melody. The melody does not become the focus of the song. I guess I was just trying to paint that picture of nurturing creativity and what that can evolve into.
JazzReview: After chasin’ down all of this jazz, is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or does the evolution and journey keep recreating itself?
Ron Blake: It is all about the journey. You know, I don’t know if there is a pot of gold in it, but somehow the rewards come from being able to share it with people on a regular basis. Being able to perform, for me, that is something that I love to do. I love being able to react with an audience. Recording has now become a big part of that, too. I feel that I have opened up the doors towards having my recordings and what I am doing there, be another expression of creativity that is alive. Like every time you go back to listen to the music, you can go somewhere else with it depending on where you are!
JazzReview: Hey man, it was a great pleasure hangin’ with you!
Ron Blake: Same here. It’s been fun!