|Right Before Your Very Ears is reedman Michael Blake’s latest entry in a fairly long-running career that has included work with the Lounge Lizards in addition to his own groups, which often feature bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard, his cohorts here.
While uncompromising fire music is the modus operandi and pedigree of James Finn, Blake’s trio is considerably more difficult to pin down (as is his own pedigree), and despite the presence of three group improvisations, the inclusion of Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday” (on which Blake doubles tenor and soprano a la Rashaan) and the traditional “Careless Love” belie an allegiance to tunefulness amid the skronk. “Funhouse” is a loping number that quickly becomes a freebop barnstormer, Blake’s tenor sounding more sandblasted than burnished, until Allison inserts a funky blues line halfway through, bringing the piece back in as Ballard takes a calypso-inspired drum solo that oozes Denis Charles—a slippery group identity, indeed.
“Mt. Harissa” is a stark, moody ballad alternating “Round Midnight” references as well as guttural squall (which Blake inserts at oddly slow tempo here), girded primarily by Allison’s fluid pizzicato and appearing as though it wants to break loose at every turn. “Flip” appears at the outset to be a set-closer, its theme a plodding snatch of gutbucket tenor honks, which soon becomes a delicate, lilting blues tenor solo over subtle toms and bass work, then into fleet Texas-style phrasing over a (literally) galloping rhythm section.
As a trio, these musicians have logged countless hours playing together—but there are a considerable amount of groups that never approach this fluidity not only in communication, but in compositional structure, allowing Trane-ish freebop numbers like “Fly With the Wind” equal space with free improvisation, bluesy bar-walks, calypsos (“All of This is Yours”) and delicate Lacy-inspired readings of Monk. The history of modern jazz is, as the title says, Right before Your Very Ears.
Michael Blake and James Finn have found much to say in the “power trio” format, and that is a communicative equilibrium is endemic to the art of creative music, whether in high-octane energy music or subtle parsing of song form. Three is a prime number, indeed.