Q & A with saxophonist Michael Blake

November 24, 2007



Saxophonist Michael Blake likes to keep busy. Since moving to New York in the mid-1980s, he has released albums on several labels, including Danish Stunt Records, New York-based Palmetto, Canadian Songlines and Portuguese Clean Feed. His band projects, including Blake Tartare and Slow Poke, have received positive responses from music critics (this fall, Palmetto records released Slow Poke’s first record as an online exclusive). Blake was a member of the Jazz Composers’ Collective until its unofficial end in 2005, and continues to collaborate closely with bassist Ben Allison (founder of the collective) and trumpet player Steven Bernstein. Blake has also released solo albums, toured in Europe, and performed in a range of venues, from the Standard and Jazz at Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn Public Library. Blake and I recently chatted about his most recent album, his insights into the music industry, and his thoughts on the survival of jazz. 

Q: You play in a wide variety of venues, from Lincoln Center and the Stone to the Brooklyn Public Library. What keeps you motivated?


“If I do club dates, I’m working for great people and with great people, and I enjoy it, and that’s the first reason why I do it. I can’t call up the Blue Note and say I’m a single dad saxophone player and composer struggling out here. They’d just be like ‘yeah you and a thousand other guys.’ I understand the process of personal connection and getting work. I get work because people are recommending me, hearing about me, or I’m creating it myself. I have an agent here who is helping me find work in Europe.”


Q: Palmetto Records recently did an online release of Slow Poke’s first record, 1998’s At Home. Although the recording is nearly ten years old, what do you think draws people in to its sound?


“It was a good crossover project because it appealed to people who like rock and it appealed to people who like avant-garde. It was such a special thing. We had a moment in time when we were packing the midnight shows, it became a buzz. We had our own sound. But we had four really intense personalities, we had a flailing record company that didn’t really get it [German Intuition]. Then 9-11 happened, and it was getting harder and harder keeping things together, a lot of times because of scheduling. You get a band it four people, it has to be with those four people to really have the sound, and if they all aren’t able to commit, it all falls apart just like a rock band.”


Q: So Slow Poke doesn’t exist anymore?


“A year ago, when I worked on this thing with Palmetto, I got everyone talking and they said if we get some gigs we go play, which I still believe. […] The last time I did a Slow Poke gig was in Providence last summer, and I had a completely different group. We rocked, it was awesome, but it just showed me what I told Palmetto: That if things take off, it’s my band, it’s my vision, if those guys can’t make the gig, let’s just do it anyway. I think four or five years ago if I said I was doing a Slow Poke gig with someone else, it could have caused some kind of a rift, but I really get the feeling that everyone is too busy, and it’s just so petty to be like that. I know I can make it function with other people. But I’d like to keep it as close to the original guys as I can, if the work offers come. I’m not sure if the work offers come because you go out and play for crappy money in bars, so what’s the point of getting all these guys who are all way too busy and amazing to do that anymore? If we’re going to do it, we’ll do it because it’s easy and fun, we find a nice place to play, our friends come out and we make a little money.”


Q: What made you decide to go with the online release?


“The idea [with the self-release] is that if Palmetto sees a significant amount of downloads and they feel the album wouldn’t lose a ton of money on the shelves, they would make the CDs and do a distribution based on the fact that the thing is creating a buzz and has a life to itself.”


Q: What have the sales of At Home been so far?


“I don’t know. That’s the kind of thing that tends to really depress me. The Palmetto guys said that some of the tracks are moving, like there is a Neil Young track, so people who like that song tend to lean towards that. They were surprised that the jammy, rocking stuff wasn’t getting as many downloads as the ballads and the slower stuff.”


Q: How do you think online distribution is impacting jazz? How has it impacted your own work?

“I’m sad to see the album getting lost in all this. Every record I’ve ever made as had a concept. It’s an album, you want someone put in your cd and maybe commit 30 minutes to the record, they might skip some tracks but still get a feel for the whole record. There are people who made 70 or 90 minute records, people who are super music lovers might get to al that music, but that’s a lot of time to put into listening to music. When you start to look at it as singles, it’s liberating for a jazz musician because you can go in and record maybe two or three tunes and mix them and upload them to your web site and either sell them or give them away, but you don’t have to create a whole record. You can just take your three best tunes and make those really great and put them out. It’s really helpful for getting grants, getting gigs, just having a business card.”

Q: So what’s the role of record labels, especially smaller labels, in all this?


 “The labels that I’m with are all run by really smart men—usually—who have this obsession with music and sound and jazz and improvised music has really caught their imagination so they are willing to invest their energy and time into this. It seems to me like a tremendous amount of work, considering that they are always losing money. Everyone who gets behind me and puts out a record, I’m kind of humbled by. They could choose other people. I know it’s a struggle, but I think they are adapting to this idea that every track they make is potentially just a free spirit, it could go out there and you’ll lose control. You won’t be able to track it and make money off it. Someone’s going to buy it and 40 other people are going to burn it for free. And if the music is going to be free, they have to make money somehow. So there is very little money being paid to the artist for their masters, and we’re seeing more and more companies who want to own the master. This is their only bargaining tool—at least they have the album in their catalog. In a lot of cases in gratuity, but in other cases it’s licensed. That’s what I do, I license the masters and hope that one day I’ll possess them, people will download them from a site that I own and run. I want to be in control of all my music.”


Q: When it comes to the city’s venues, how have you seen the scene change in recent years?

“I miss Tonic [the club closed last spring]. As much as we do on our own, we are dependent on some crazy person who wants to run a performance space. Just someone really committed to creative music, to jazz and beyond. New York needs that. There are still thousands of Japanese tourists who come here to go to the jazz clubs and stuff. They are interested in that culture. If it becomes too hard for them to find, or there are just five expensive places, there is no counterculture, and there’s no option.”

Q: Is any venue stepping up to that role that Tonic used to have?

“When you get to a mid-sized venue like the Jazz Standard, you start to think that maybe this is as good as it gets. They don’t have a big after-gig hang. It’s very expensive. And they are still kind of under that corporate umbrella, so it’s not quite the same as those other places. Occasionally I’ll end up in an amazing space that I didn’t even know existed. There are these great rooms in New York City where it would be great to see more jazz music going on, but they do more pop stuff, like the Thalia Theatre uptown. There’s also a great theater in the Holocaust museum. For clubs though, it’s really hard to say, I try not to get really depressed about it. I have to say that I don’t really have a spot.”

Q: What has the impact of Lincoln Center been on this musical form? Did Lincoln Center kill jazz, like some musicians say?


“No, Lincoln center didn’t kill jazz. I’ve done two Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts in my career. One was the Herbie Nichols Project, which was basically them bringing in the Jazz Composers’ Collective. And the reason we got that gig was because Ted Nash [of the Jazz Composers’ Collective] is in the Lincoln Center orchestra. He’s been in the orchestra from the beginning and gotten maybe one or two solo opportunities at Lincoln Center. So you can’t say it’s this inclusive, political thing, because he’s been in this orchestra for ten years and they aren’t throwing him a lot of opportunities either with his own music. So the thing at Lincoln Center becomes: whose music is being played? In the spirit of jazz we like to think that everyone is creating new music—we want to encourage new composers and support established composers, we want to have an open mind to all kinds of aspects of jazz. We just don’t see that. I don’t know if it’s because of the artistic direction or the business, if they are afraid that if they book stuff that’s different it will give their music less integrity. They are sort of the flagship for jazz in the United States. I refrain from being overtly negative about [Lincoln Center] because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. In this business you might end up with a friend in a position that you didn’t expect, who’s there to support your community. It might be that it’s just a waiting game. It can happen in a little club, and it can happen at Lincoln Center. It’s best to just be neutral and not have a sense of entitlement.”


Q: You’ve recently been experimenting with solo singing. In terms of your own career and music, what are your goals?

“Ultimately I want to do a record that’s more like a pop, soul and jazz album: Just some shamelessly fun music, music for dancing, really bootyshaking kind of stuff. Instrumental music is great, but I also like to sing, it feels great, and the more I do it the better I get at it. I sing in public with Blake Tartar now, we do a couple of little tunes. It’s the hardest thing, having the confidence sometimes to not hide behind my saxophone. I’m at a crossroads where a part of me feels like I’d like to take this pop and soul music, the idea of Slow Poke and my larger jazz things, and just do something epic with singers and a large group. But to do something like that requires a concert and the rehearsals and the budget. Maybe that will define what I’m doing, but until then I’m sort of fragmented between these different groups. I’m seeking to find a way to blend them all together into this one, big superproject.”



Michael Blake’s home page: http://www.michaelblake.net


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