Saxophonist Dan Blake is an activist. His latest album, Da Fé, sets his activism to music with a project that’s spiritual, intense, and turbulently urgent. A practicing Buddhist since his college years, Blake has served since 2015 on the board of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to combatting chronic hunger and malnutrition around the world. He has also organized concerts to benefit other charitable organizations, including Extinction Rebellion, the Poor People’s Campaign and Show Up for Racial Justice. While he’s quick to downplay his own role in favor of those who dedicate their lives to activism, his music follows a socially conscious path blazed by the likes of Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and Alice Coltrane before him.
Da Fé translates to “of faith,” and stems from the phrase “auto da fé,” which refers to the burning of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. While Blake changed the term to avoid direct reference to that historical context, he does see a connection in the fires blazing across millions of acres in California. “There’s a certain violence to this time that we’re in, as we seem to be sacrificing ourselves at the altar of commodities. But there’s still a possibility of realizing a better future that we can put our faith in. That’s where these activist organizations come in.”
To infuse his music with the necessary spark and versatility, Blake enlisted an elite cross-generational band. He initially recorded with a quartet featuring pianist/keyboardist Carmen Staaf, bassist Dmitry Ishenko, and veteran drummer Jeff Williams. The latter was a member of the pioneering world-jazz fusion band Lookout Farm led by Dave Liebman, one of Blake’s mentors in both music and activism. He then teamed with longtime collaborator Leo Genovese (Moog, Farfisa, Prophet, Piano, Rhodes), with whom he worked in Esperanza Spalding’s band, to reimagine the music in post-production via additional piano, synths and multiple saxophone lines. “I wanted to take full advantage of the studio on this album,” Blake explains. “My model for that is Wayne Shorter’s work from the 1980s – his mid-period albums like Atlantis, Phantom Navigator or Joy Ryder, where he interacts with himself playing multiple parts to realize a bigger sonic landscape from the horn. I was envisioning a sax chorus through a reflective, hall of mirrors idea.”
Staaf opens the album solo with the prayer-like “Prologue – A New Normal.” Her static-like electronics mixed with her piano creates a mysterious, haunting effects suggesting that danger lies ahead unless we heed the calls to action. The wind effects toward the end could be a direct reference to climate change and those wildfires alluded to previously. The modal “Cry of the East” evokes John Coltrane via Dave Liebman’s searching approach on soprano sax on a dedication to the plight of the Palestinian people and, as Blake says, “all the unseen, unheard souls whose suffering has been caused by the actions of Western powers and policies.”
The raging, undulating “Like Fish in Puddles” takes its title from a piece in the Atthakavagga, a collection of Buddhist poems. The piece calls for a shift in perspective. It’s Blake’s way of communicating that we are increasingly isolating ourselves despite the limited resources we have to draw upon. You’ll hear the layered saxophones and effects. Opening with a strident solo by the composer backed by Genovese’s synths, “Pain” delivers an unsettling soundscape designed to convey both universal and personal strife, inspired by the recent loss of Blake’s father and grandmother. The gloomy “The Grifter,” is full of angular lines, discordant keys, and potent spots from Staff and Williams. It hardly needs much explanation, given the looming serial liar who recently exited the White House; the one we so desperately need to put in the rearview mirror.
Blake particularly enjoys exploring vamps with Williams, as they do on “The Cliff,” whose rhythmic complexities feel like striding uncertainly along the edge of a jagged precipice as the leader uses saxophones in counterpoint with each other while the keyboardists seem to (no pun intended) wander off the edge. Ishenko’s bass solo is terrific, as if tightrope walking that very precipice. “Doctor Armchair” begins with Staff’s more conventional chording but quickly becomes free jazz with Blake’s soprano and the chaotic churn of the keys and rhythm section. The piece is a satire addressing the “know it alls” who have not yet earned their so-called expertise. Genovese’s cosmic synths layer on the hypnotic atmospherics for the title track that underpin Blake’s alternately floating and piercing soprano. The album ends with the meditative coda “Epilogue: It Heals Itself” – answering a need for calmer, spiritual sounds, as if to let us digest what has transpired, and to reflectively pause to allow healing to begin.
“I’m very inspired by the ideal of compassionate action,” Blake says. “Activism is very important to my musical creativity and is the impetus for this album. I believe musicians and artists can play a powerful role in these dangerous and urgent times by awakening a compassionate vibration in others, one that can spur action. I also believe artists like myself have a lot to learn from the dedicated activism and leadership of others who sacrifice so much to do the good work that must be done to wrest power from corrupt politicians and place it into the gentle and loving hands of the people.”
Certainly this can be an unsettling listening experience as it’s designed in part to be just that. However, deep concentrated listening reveals the rewards of continual intrigue, passionate improvisational playing, and driving urgency.
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Dan Blake has developed a wide-ranging career as a contemporary composer, performer and educator. In addition to his work as a leader, he has toured and recorded with three-time Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton, and Velvet Underground founding member John Cale, among many others. In his extended multi-disciplinary compositions, Blake weaves together his interests in world music, contemporary improvisation, animation, and performance art. This genre-bending catalog of works has earned him support from the Jerome Fund for New Music, ASCAP, and New Music USA. 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.
- Jim Hynes