LIVE: Jonathan Blake’s Trion w/ Chris Potter & Linda May Han Oh @ The Falcon, Marlboro, 03/13/2022

Drummer Johnathan Blake has an amazing new release out on Blue Note called Homeward Bound. It’s a quintet date with all-original material and is considered one of the best releases of the last year. Now, most artists would take advantage of the first live dates in some time to showcase that sucker in all its glory. So what does Blake do? He hooks up with two old friends to play music from a disc that’s over four years old – and boy was the full house at The Falcon happy he did.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Released on the small label Giant Steps Arts in 2018, Trion was a live double-disc Blake recorded at NYC’s Jazz Gallery with two of the best players of their respective instruments: sax monster Chris Potter and bass goddess Linda May Han Oh. Sadly, this release never showed up on my doorstep, so Sunday night was the first time I’d heard this unit play together. And according to Blake, this would be the first time they’d played together in almost five years. Put that on top of the long live-show layoff COVID forced on almost all musicians (“I can’t explain how beautiful it is to play in front of people,” Blake told us all), and all three players attacked the opportunity like a pride of lions on a starvation diet.

Potter started out in the clear, setting up a staccato riff that had heads bobbing from the jump. Blake and Oh jumped on the riff and we were right in the teeth of the Police classic “Synchronicity 1.” Obviously, the arrangement was as bare-bones as it gets, with no electronic wizardry designed to make the music “bigger.” Potter was just out there with tenor sax, scorching the space with searching lines that expanded with each pass. Oh kept the foundation rock solid, allowing Blake to stick & move and make his own counter-melody. Like Jeff “Tain” Watts, Blake doesn’t play the drums – he makes them sing!

Photo by Rudy Lu

I’ve been in love with Linda Oh ever since I saw her on the old Gazebo Stage at Freihofer’s, slapping around a double bass like it had tried to steal her van. Like Blake and Potter, Linda has established herself as a leader in her own right, and her playing & composing just keeps getting better. She found harmonics that probably shouldn’t exist on Chris’ composition “Eagle” and Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday” (which Blake dedicated to “the GOAT” Roy Haynes on his 97th birthday), and her opening solo on the new piece “Beauty Beneath the Rubble” was so clear and so clean that it drew all of us into Blake’s blues-tinged meditation.

Although he can play multiple instruments, Potter doesn’t need an arsenal of axes to make whatever point he wants to make. Just give him a tenor sax, and Potter is in the Potter Zone, finding spaces between the notes where he can make sounds all his own even as he can whip out a quick quote from “Epistrophy” to put the cherry on top of “Boo Boo’s Birthday.” Potter’s opening on Blake’s “No Bebop, Daddy” was lead-pencil simple, but it got marvelously complex even as it dove down into the darkness that swirls around the tune like an angry sky. Potter’s own composition “Good Hope” flew like an F-22 to end the evening on a towering exclamation point.

Photo by Rudy Lu

It’s a dead heat what I like most about Blake: His playing, or his writing. I mentioned the quality of the compositions on Homeward Bound, and my last live experience with Blake was at the Jazz Gallery debut of the commission “My Life Matters”, a stunning work that has yet to be recorded. On this night, Blake brought his A-Plus game to every piece, giving Potter and Oh exactly what their work needed even as he created his own musical beauty. I hate to bring up Tain Watts again, but the comparison seems so obvious, from Blake’s mastery of his kit to the affable personality that worked between tunes to bring us all a little closer to the music. Blake dedicated “Beauty Beneath The Rubble” to the late Tony Falco and his son Lee, thanking them both “for keeping this venue alive!” He also name-checked uber-promoter Danny Melnick, who helped get grant funding for a Sunday night jazz series that will bring Brandee Younger, Lew Tabackin, and Brianna Thomas to Marlboro in the coming weeks. Blake and his partners are the kind of world-beaters Tony Falco lured to the Catskills for years and years, and the group returned the favor Sunday night with the kind of knockout performances that make today’s jazz as electrifying as it is.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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