Johnathan Blake
David Ellis
Johnathan Blake

Three come together as one

Vermont Jazz Center hosts Johnathan Blake Trion on Feb. 18

BRATTLEBORO — Three of the top musicians in jazz come together to perform as as one in an evening of adventurous and energetic music at the Vermont Jazz Center, Saturday, Feb. 18, at 7:30 p.m.

Johnathan Blake’s Trion is a chord-less jazz trio (includes no chordal instrument such as piano or guitar) featuring three of the leading players of their generation: Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, Linda May Han Oh on acoustic bass and band leader Blake on drums.

Reviewing their self-titled recording, Trion, Apple-music states “Blake rides a hurricane as he convenes with two giants [...] Each player is amply and repeatedly featured, but the trio sounds like a genuine collective, not stars hunkering down in their respective corners.”

The repertoire of the group ranges from original compositions and pop tunes to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk standards, all performed with an open-ended concept.

This group doesn’t hold back. All three are virtuosos on their instruments; they use their prowess to swing hard, think hard, and communicate at a level that’s unrestrained by the confines of technique, knowledge, and ability. They know when to burn and when to leave space, when to swing and when to play a ballad, when to sit in the pocket and when to go wild.

After years of playing with the top musicians of the world, this trio of leaders has refined their ability to convey their ideas, thoughts, and emotions into instantaneous poetry, using notes as a proxy for words. Their ears guide them to a universe unfettered by the demands of their instruments and unobstructed by the constraints of harmony.

Their musical conversations evolve into well-informed compositions, and we, as listeners, are privileged to eavesdrop and follow each thread as it morphs from a germ of an idea into a fully developed construct. This is music for deep listening, and the rewards are great.

(1)Johnathan Blake’s website clarifies his use of the word “trion” as the band’s name, noting that the physics term refers to three atoms combining to form a single unit — a concept that is deeply meaningful in the context of this highly attuned trio.”

No matter who is soloing, the whole group is united in their accompaniment and even free to participate or interject. In Trion there exists a sense of democracy where each of the three voices carries equal weight.

Blake might be the organizer, but each member is both a leader and a follower; there are no apparent ego-centric obstacles that block their creative alliance. Instead, there is a sense of freedom in the form and a mutual trust in their collective journey.

In a quote found on his website, Blake spoke to the trio’s collaborative relationship, referring to a concert they performed in January 2018 that was released as an album in 2019 by Giant Step Arts.

“I’m in awe of both Linda and Chris,” said Blake. “This [concert] was really a beautiful chance for us to make some honest music together and I really enjoyed the process. We all felt very comfortable in the chord-less format. We really know how to fill up the space without getting in each other’s way, which gives each one of us the opportunity to have our shining moments.”

One can’t be certain what Blake means by honesty, but after just a short time experiencing this group’s interactive music, listeners can tune into the respect that each person brings to the collaboration, the willingness to be both powerful and vulnerable, their unwavering commitment to the music, and the clear intention to be receptive.

Each one of the musicians here is strong rhythmically and melodically, so a sense of confidence and power permeates the musical space. But if any uncertainty arises it is seen as an opportunity to express that honestly and to unabashedly rely on one’s bandmates.

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(2)In an online interview with Ulysses Owens Jr., Blake mentioned one of the things he learned from the great bassist Rufus Reid was “talent only takes you so far.” Blake is extremely talented, and his youth was peppered with a perfect storm of opportunities to study and develop his skills.

He was constantly challenged by excellent role models and teachers and took to heart the need to work diligently to develop his craft.

Blake evolved as a sideman who was able to fulfill the objectives of leaders of a variety of styles: masters of the tradition — like Kenny Barron and Russell Malone — and those whose personalized, creative visions were very specific — like Tom Harrell, Maria Schneider, and Oliver Lake.

Blake studied violin, piano, and drums as a youth in Philadelphia where he was privy to one of the most fertile jazz education scenes in the world. Similar to his contemporaries(3) like Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, Jaleel Shaw, and Orrin Evans, Blake was welcomed to sit in at gigs with noted jazz educators and legends, (4)including Robert Landham, Shirley Scott, Mickey Roker, and his own father, John Blake Jr.

Blake went on to William Paterson College, to study in a program led by yet another mentor, Rufus Reid. Once he moved to the New York area, Blake began getting calls for gigs, including as the drum chair with the Mingus Big Band, and touring and recording stints with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ravi Coltrane, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Barron, (5)Tom Harrell, Oliver Lake, Russell Malone, David Sánchez, and many others.

Blake is in high demand as a sideman in recording and touring projects. He is also a composer and band leader whose six albums have earned stellar reviews. His work attracted the attention of the legendary Blue Note label for which he now records.

Blake received a Grammy Award for his drumming on Maria Schneider’s Data Lords as well as three Grammy nominations, two for the work he’s done with the Mingus Big Band and one for Kenny Barron’s Book of Intuition.

Chris Potter is the saxophonist of the group. Down Beat called him “one of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet” while Jazz Times identified him as “a figure of international renown.”

Potter’s discography includes over 30 albums as a leader and more than 700 recordings as a sideman. (6)He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his solo work on In Vogue, a track from (7)Joanne Brackeen’s 1999 album Pink Elephant Magic, and he was featured on (8)Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning album from 2000, Two Against Nature.

(9)Potter has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, including Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, and Ray Brown. Some of the leaders with whom Potter had long-lasting relationships include Red Rodney, Dave Holland, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, and Jim Hall. Potter’s recordings as a leader illustrate his facility with the tradition, a willingness to embrace the present, and an eagerness to look to the future.

Bassist Linda May Han Oh has been recognized as one of the finest bassists of her generation. The Wall Street Journal claims that “her innovative range and stellar improvisations have made [her] one of the most dynamic rising stars in jazz today.”

Pat Metheny, with whom she performed and recorded, said [Oh] “has all the things you want: great time, a really big and yet dynamic sound, a fantastic harmonic sense and real facility on the instrument [...] She has an indescribable presence in the music that is really hard to find. She owns the space around the notes she plays in ways that really add up to something more than the notes and sounds. There is a transcendent thing happening there that is really what makes music music.”

Oh has released eight albums as a leader and has performed as a sidewoman on over 100 recordings. She has served as a member of the Pat Metheny Group, the Dave Douglas Quintet, Vijay Iyer Trio, Fabian Almazan Trio, and numerous projects with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and Kris Davis, with whom she collaborates in Berklee School of Music’s Jazz and Gender Justice Program.

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Come to the Jazz Center on Feb. 18 and find out what happens when three of the very top musicians in their field come together to explore the endless possibilities of improvisation.

What tunes will they play? Will they revisit The Police’s “Synchronicity I,” or Charlie Parker’s “Relaxing at Camarillo,” as they did on their eponymous debut? Will the stage explode with their intensity?

What we do know is that the music will be exciting and energetic, filled with passion and substance. We will be left slack-jawed and impressed, but we will also realize that these musicians play for the love of it. Blake, May Han Oh, and Potter came together as this trio in 2018 and realized that together they formed a synchronistic entity that has a life of its own.

This concert is proof that they will continue to perform when their schedules align because this constellation is fun and artistically fulfilling. This concert is a rare experience because each of these master musicians is so busy, it is a “do not miss show” that is highly recommended.