The Spiritual Song with Howard University and John Blake

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Thursday / February 10, 2011 / 6:30 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center
136 Massachusetts Avenue
United States

John Blake Jr. has been one of the world's leading jazz violinists for over four decades. Blake is also an accomplished composer and arranger who will perform with students from Howard University.

Prior to the concert there will be a panel discussion with John Blake and faculty members Larry Watson, Donna McElroy, Gabrielle Goodman, and Bill Banfield about the historical, political, sociological, and musical aspects of these transcendently important songs.

One of the first improvisers and composers to adapt to the modern era the groundbreaking contributions that Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and other pioneering jazz violinists made to the legacy of an instrument primarily associated with classical and folk music, John Blake Jr. has consistently created music that engages the heart, mind, body, and soul. With the release of Motherless Child, Blake also joins the distinguished list of jazz musicians and arrangers who have mined the rich repository of the African American spiritual songbook and created new versions of these timeless and inspirational works—some solely instrumental and others featuring vocals—that pay righteous and reverent respect to the music's illustrious heritage in a manner that is distinctively original and compelling.

John Blake Jr. has been one of the world's leading jazz violinists for over four decades. A four-time winner of the Down Beat Critics Poll in the Violinist Deserving Wider Recognition category, he was also one of the top two jazz violinists in the 49th, 50th, and 51st Down Beat Readers' Poll, Classically trained, Blake first gained recognition on early-'70s recordings he made with Archie Shepp and became established with a global audience during three years recording and touring as a member of Grover Washington Jr.'s popular "crossover" jazz band. He then spent five years working extensively as a member of various ensembles led by pianist McCoy Tyner. Among other artists with whom Blake has performed and/or recorded are the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Turtle Island String Quartet, Quartet Indigo, Steve Turre Sextet, Billy Taylor Trio, Avery Sharpe, Cecil McBee, Jay Hoggard, and James Newton.

Blake released his recording debut as a leader and composer, Maiden Dance, in 1984, the first of five well-received projects on Gramavision Records, including one that teamed him up with fellow jazz violinists Michal Urbaniak and Didier Lockwood. His sixth album,Quest, reunited him with Grover Washington and featured Joe Ford, Charles Fambrough, Ben Riley, Omar Hill, and Joey Calderazzo. Blake's first recording with his current quartet, The Traveler, was released in 2007.

Born in Philadelphia on July 3, 1947, Blake began studying violin in that city's public school system and at the Settlement Music School. After graduating from West Virginia University he did postgraduate work at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Montreux, Switzerland and received a grant to study studied East Indian music. In addition to his work as an instrumentalist performing with his quartet and as a featured guest soloist at concerts and on studio sessions, Blake is also an accomplished composer, arranger, and producer as well as an author, teacher, and lecturer who presents hundreds of workshops annually to musicians at all levels. He cowrote with Suzuki educator Jody Harmon J.I.M.E., the definitive beginning string jazz method book and CD in use around the world.

In addition to lecturing on campuses throughout the U.S., Blake is on the faculty of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and at the Manhattan School of Music, and has been a guest lecturer at Berklee. In 2004 he was appointed to the Basler Chair of Excellence for the winter semester at East Tennessee State University and that year also was awarded a Chamber Music America Jazz Composer Grant.

The quartet Blake has been working with for close to a decade featuring pianist Sumi Tonooka, bassist Boris Kozlov, and the violinist's son Johnathan on drums is the core group featured onMotherless Child. They are augmented on some tracks by Howard University's jazz vocal group Afro Blue in a manner that recalls such jazz instrumental-vocal collaborations as arranger Duke Pearson's classic "Cristo Redentor." The performances of "Go Down Moses," I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," "Nobody Knows (the Trouble I've Seen), and other classics truly reflect the spirit and passion of these sacred songs. Pianist Mulgrew Miller guests on the album's title track and "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," while pianist and vocalist Evelyn Simpson-Curenton is featured on her arrangement of "A Balm in Gilead." Blake contributes a solo violin introduction to "A City Called Heaven" that is followed by a quartet version of this song that resonates with the power and passion one associates with another jazz master whose music was informed by spirituality, saxophonist John Coltrane. 

"Most of the Spirituals I chose are ones I felt would be most familiar to listeners," Blake said, "and I myself remember crying as I listened to some of these songs as a child. 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen' was inspired by a deeply moving performance by Afro Blue of Gerri Allen's a cappella arrangement of 'O Freedom' that deeply moved me," he continued. "'Hold On' is a spiritual about perseverance that was also used as an 'escape song' to warn slaves to keep working or to 'keep their hand on de plow' until the time was right to flee. 'A Balm in Gilead' and 'A City Called Heaven' are both uplifting songs that speak of healing and a spiritual place where sorrows and pain cease to exist. Both their words and their melodies remind African Americans of their struggle for spiritual and physical freedom and it is my hope that the world will remember how important these songs were historically to the survival of the human race," Blake added. The violinist chose for the cover ofMotherless Child a photo taken in Nagongera, Uganda where he spent the summer of 2009 with a ministry called Covenant Mercies, whose mission supports orphans whose parents died of AIDs. "The spirituals created and song by my ancestors relate very much to the motherless children from this region," he explained.

John Blake Comments on the Musicians on Motherless Child

"I've been collaborating with pianist Sumi Tonooka for over two decades and over the years we've developed a deep friendship and a strong chemistry. In addition to being a virtuoso instrumentalist and a veteran performer, she's also an excellent composer and arranger who's released several CDs under her own name. Sumi has also worked with Philly Joe Jones, Red Rodney, David 'Fathead' Newman and Rufus Reid's ensemble, among others. We have travelled and performed all over the country and the world and released the duo recording Kindred Spirits in 2000.

"The presence of my son Johnathan Blake on drums adds more history and chemistry through our relationship as father and son and communication as two musicians. His contribution as a great team player in this ensemble has been a very powerful force in shaping the feel and excitement in the band's performances. He and bassist Boris Kozlov play with incredible empathy due in part to their having worked together in the Mingus Big Band. Boris is a remarkable bassist and a virtuoso instrumentalist and accompanist and who seems to always know the correct feel for the right moment in the music.

"Evelyn Simpson-Curenton's arrangement and vocal work on 'Balm in Gilead' still brings me to tears when I listen to her voice in the beginning of this song. Mulgrew Miller is one of the leading contemporary pianists of our time whose playing always demonstrates masterful technique while being extremely inventive and expressive.

"Finally, I can't say enough about the superb singing on this recording by Howard University's incomparable jazz vocal group Afro Blue. Its members have great intonation and are extremely talented improvisers who proved flexible and versatile enough to blend in with the other musicians on this project. Professor Connaitre Miller, the ensemble's founder and music director, never fails to inspire her students to create first rate, professional music and I'm so pleased and honored to have been able to work with them. My meetings and consultations with Professor Miller were invaluable during the process of writing these arrangements and her training of these talented students is unmatched by anything I've ever seen."

$10 general admission