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Johnathan Blake: The Ultimate Modernist

Drummer Johnathan Blake tackles Robert Glasper's "Canvas," and in the process gives it a renewed sheen.
Emra Islek
Drummer Johnathan Blake tackles Robert Glasper's "Canvas," and in the process gives it a renewed sheen.

Johnathan Blake is the ultimate modernist. As a drummer, he's as comfortable steering ensembles led by jazz veterans such as trumpeter Tom Harrell and saxophonist Oliver Lake as he is providing the pulse beneath rapper Q-Tip and deep-house diva Monday Michiru. Old-school strategies, though, still seep into Blake's music, as illustrated by the fetching "Canvas."

Celebrated jazz pianist Robert Glasper wrote the tune. With Blake giving it a renewed sheen, it echoes that fertile period in jazz when luminaries frequently played original compositions of their contemporaries. For its 2005 incarnation, Glasper recorded the composition in a quartet format, with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner making a guest appearance.

Turner appears in this version, too, joining the thickened frontline horn section with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and harmonica player Grégoire Maret. Not coincidentally, Glasper holds down the piano chair once again, while Blake drives the momentum alongside bassist Ben Street.

From just one listen, you can hear why Blake chose "Canvas." It comes with a catchy melody and enough harmonic cushioning to inspire numerous stylistic variations. And, while Glasper's improvisational repartee with Maret gets most of the spotlight here, toward the end — when Blake's snappy drumming becomes more pronounced — it shows why "Canvas" is a great vehicle for adventurous rhythm makers, as well.

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John Murph writes about music and culture and works as a web producer for BETJazz.com. He also contributes regularly to The Washington Post Express, JazzTimes, Down Beat, and JazzWise magazines.