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What’s on Your Playlist: Dan Blake

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Dan Blake has developed a wide-ranging career as a contemporary composer, performer and educator that “regards tradition as a welcoming playground best approached with a sense of wonder and adventure” (The Boston Globe). Blake’s music has been called “stunning” (All About Jazz), and he was dubbed a “virtuoso” (The New York Times) for his work touring and recording both with his own projects and with luminaries of jazz and popular music like three-time Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton, and Velvet Underground founding member John Cale, among many others. As a composer of extended works for jazz ensembles, string quartets, orchestras, sound installations, and many other configurations, Blake gravitates toward collaborations with artists who share a desire to move beyond creative boundaries. He has found such collaborators in groups like Mivos Quartet, the Tri Centric Orchestra, Talea, and many others, who have commissioned and recorded his works.

A musician keenly interested in bringing music together with social justice causes, Dan Blake sits on the board of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to ending hunger and malnutrition in poor communities around the world. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from the City University of New York and is currently on faculty at the New School for Social Research, and at the Conservatory at Brooklyn College.

I’ve always been entertained by the thought of a “desert island” album as an abstract idea, one that has unfortunately taken on a somewhat more literal significance since the COVID-19 lockdowns. While I am always searching for new sounds, here are ten albums that have been in steady circulation over the last year. – Daniel Blake

1. Godwin Louis Global (2019)

Godwin is my favorite saxophone player of my generation. He expresses a fierce love for humanity through his virtuosic and heartfelt playing. The profoundly “global” aspect of this music lies in Godwin’s embrace a collective bandleading and composing strategy. The track “The Four Essential Prayers of Guinea” encapsulates the profound dialogue I hear throughout the recording, where Godwin trades phrases with bandmates and seamlessly moves between musical styles and melodic sections. The themes covered are both earthly and heavenly and ask all the right questions about where we are headed – I hold this music in the highest regard.

2. Denman MaroneyMartingale (2020)

Denman is a veteran improviser and a pioneer on his instrument who I’ve always respected. But the level of focus in the ensemble writing on his most recent recording – brilliantly interpreted by the ensemble of Steven Frieder, Ratzo Harris, and Bob Meyer – makes this one of my favorite albums of 2020. Maroney writes in a way that feels inevitable, utilizing every possible orchestration of the quartet. The bowed bass feature “Primal Sympathy” is a highlight.

3. Alice ColtraneThe Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane (2017)

This collection of Alice Coltrane’s devotional music is simply magical. I wish I could have witnessed live some of the adaptations of Vedic chants captured here, which Coltrane performed at the Shanti Anantam Ashram where she served as spiritual director for many years. Every track on this recording is a gem, blending electronic music, gospel and blues, and the ancient sounds of Southeast Asia. The result is a beautiful expression of spiritual love, and I can’t help but imagine John Coltrane channeling through from the cosmos.

4. Leonard Bernstein/NY Philharmonic Mahler Symphony No. 3: Langsam (1986)

There is something about how Bernstein conducts this epic finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony that is so gut-wrenchingly emotional. I have turned to this movement at various points during the pandemic for solace. Make sure to hang in there for the full twenty-five minute ride on this one!

5. clipping.Visions of Bodies Being Burned (2020)

This album is an unsettling and profound contribution to a year of upheaval. Daveed Diggs is a powerful performer whose lyrical imagination is unstoppable. On a track like “Something Underneath”, Diggs’ virtuosity is layered upon the bubbling sonic inventions of producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. The result is a compelling and extremely intense listening experience, reminding me that there is so much still to be said.

6. Wayne ShorterEmanon (2018)

With this magisterial recording, Wayne demonstrates the consummate freedom he has achieved through his craft. He improvises with his landmark quartet while also sculpting a beautiful sonic tapestry out of new and old material, enlisting the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to interpret the extended scores. The result is simply unparalleled. Right from the first chord struck by pianist Danilo Perez (one of my most important mentors), “Pegasus” is followed by a stunning evolution of the intro material from his classic composition “Witch Hunt”. This piece, and the recording as a whole, shows Wayne’s continually evolving sense of curiosity and embrace of the unknown that will always inspire me to infinity.

7. Pat Metheny80/81 (1981)

I love this recording most of all for Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman, two late titans of the tenor. I wish they made more recordings together. Their solos on “Two Folk Songs” and “Open” are both tours de force in the use of post-Coltrane extended techniques. I believe that jazz music is special because it allows such different approaches to coexist and even fulfill one other on a single recording. This makes me wonder what the world would look like if our politics could reflect this kind of open embrace of difference.

8. Don Cherry/Gato BarbieriTogetherness (1965)

I love everything about this band, and could have picked any recording from its all-too-brief existence, but this is the one I’ve been listening to lately. The way Cherry organizes his compositions into improvised suites is distinct from Ornette’s group, providing an interesting parallel to how Miles ran his groups during this period. Cherry and Gato are just so alive the way they improvise together!

9. Noname Room 25 (2018)

This is an artist I learned about from my students at The New School, and who speaks directly to what is most important. I am impressed by the work she does with incarcerated people, establishing book clubs and mutual aid for their benefit. She sets an example for the rest of us that artists can have an impact not only with their music, but also outside the industry through movement building and direct service.

10. Eliane RadigueOccam Ocean I (2018)

Radigue is one of the most important figures for me in electronic music. She delves so deeply into a sound it is easy to get lost in the apparent simplicity of her process, which is rooted in tape feedback and Buchla synthesizers from an earlier era. She is also a practicing Buddhist and the influence on her aesthetic is noticeable to me. This recording is noteworthy because after a lifetime working in electronic music, Radigue is working here with acoustic instrumentalists. The result is fascinating, where players begin to sound almost like one of her electronic compositions, ultimately disappearing into a much larger musical texture, inviting the listener to come along. How nice to be able to disappear into sound!

Dan Blake’s latest album, Da Fé (Sunnyside), was released on March 12, 2021. www.danielblake.com

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