The Alex Blake Quartet
The Zinc Bar, March 26, 2003:
I received e-mail from Carolyn Owerka as a result of reviewing the jazz quartet, People Like Us, at Nolita Tavern. Carolyn invited me to review The Alex Blake Quartet at The Zinc Bar on West Houston Street in Manhattan. Since I work just a few blocks away from there, I couldn’t resist going there after work to check it out. Carolyn represents four great jazz musicians and is interested in my reviews of each of them. I am more than interested; I am overjoyed at this invitation.
The Zinc Bar is a cozy little jazz venue located at 90 West Houston Street. I must have passed by there hundreds of times on my lunch hour walks but overlooked the below ground storefront. The Zinc Bar has sponsored jazz for about ten years according to Dabney the friendly bartender who serves me in the quiet pre-show evening. Dabney elaborates further that Alex Blake is fabulous and brings in a good crowd.
The Zinc bar is a real old school jazz venue. It is below ground with dark lights, a smoke filled bar and a cool calico cat meandering nearby. This is a rainy, early spring night in Manhattan. The thick smoke actually stings my eyes somewhat, but that all ends soon with the no smoking law that takes effect on April 1st.
At 8:03 P.M. Alex Blake is warming up his standup bass. While tuning, Alex is all over the bass. I can see immediately this is going to be very, VERY good indeed! I soon meet Carolyn Owerka and we immediately exchange cards.
The first set starts with Alex Blake soloing on the bass where he demonstrates excellent melodic control and features wild scales and percussive chords. His attack level is extreme as he skats along easily and naturally with the notes and rhythmically accented chords. Alex is seriously slapping the standup bass while balancing provocative melodic phrasings, complemented by his vocal skat accompaniment. This incredible introduction breaks into, “Caravan.” The arrangement features super staccato Latin accents with the drummer, Victor Jones, utilizing the reverse stick on the snare and striking the side of the floor tom-tom for dynamic effect. The band breaks into a swing change for contrasting musical effect, then back into a hard Latin chop attack. The alto saxophone from Chris Hunter is melodic with dissonant arpeggio bursts and well-timed high note wailing. The band is blowin' hard! The pianist, Ted Cruz, is comping beautiful chords, then solos with long melodic line phrasings while his left hand continues to comp extremely tastefully. The melody is embellished and the piano solo is excellent. The band demonstrates excellent dynamic surges, playing loud then soft for excellent contrast and firm control. The drum solo is excellent; very different and creative. Alex takes a bass solo that is amazing. Besides creative melodic development, Alex exhibits amazing right hand double strumming with strong slapping and extreme percussive attack. Alex’s scat vocals easily and superbly accompany his melodic display. This band really swings!
The second musical entry starts with a bass solo from Alex. He slaps the upright with the forefingers and thumb in rhythmic triplets. His extreme percussive attack is complemented by scat vocals. Alex plays a long solo as I stare in awe at this amazing bassist. The band breaks into a hot swing composition as a cut-time change evokes dynamic clarity. Alex walks fiercely on the standup. Chris Hunter takes an amazing alto sax solo, as this tiny hideaway is turned into a musical inferno. As Chris is wailing, the band is on fire! As Victor Jones simmers that hot jazz swing tempo, Ted Cruz plays a hot piano solo. He randomly inserts incredible rhythmic accents at will. Ted plays long creative melodic lines with dissonant comping complementing his incredibly rhythmic expression. Victor Jones takes an amazing drum solo. He executes flawless and seamless expressive displays of double-time to cut-time and cleverly accented rim shots on the snare. He executes amazing left hand rolls, very controlled paradiddles and cymbal accent crashes. Alex takes a bass solo that is incredible. His intensity and rhythmic attack is something I have never seen on the standup bass. The band segways into a quiet Latin change that is controlled, soothing, and has a real nice touch.
Song three is a quiet ballad with the alto sax playing soft and sweet. The sax blows sensuous sustain notes then contrasting intense arpeggio bursts. The piano solo is thoughtful and sincere with creative melodic development, arpeggios and thoughtful clarity. The band’s dynamic flow is contoured to fully feature each soloist, providing ample creative space for each musician. Victor Jones executes excellent brushwork to dynamically feature the piano, soulful! Alex takes a bass solo. His thumb and forefingers explode with wild slapping and exuberant rhythmic strumming and furious melodic arpeggios. The bass solo is accompanied by unison skat vocals that mirror the melody line of the solo while featuring the dynamic accents of his right hand. Chris Hunter comps the melody line with his alto then builds to a stupendous solo crescendo and tops it all off with wailing vibrato high notes.
The last song of the first set is a super fast bop chart with a frenzied tempo. Chris solos on his alto with Victor riding on the cymbals and displaying a super articulate left hand. Alex walks the bass then slaps the bass in a controlled musical mugging of his defenseless instrument. The piano solo from Ted Cruz features melodic development, then incredibly emotional arpeggios. Alex’s bass fingers walk, then downward slap, then they are complemented by back & forth double strumming with the right hand. The bass and drums have a fantastic answer/response solo. They are talking musically back and forth. They perform comedic phrases on the bass and drums together, amazing! The band goes into a rock-oriented heavy hitting segment. The band is wailing; it is on fire!
To say I have been completely blown away by The Alex Blake Quartet would be a serious understatement. Alex plays standup bass like no one I have ever seen before! Each member of his band is a tremendously amazing musician. I sat with Carolyn on my left and Susan (Alex’s wife) on my right, barely able to control myself at the incredible showmanship we were privileged to witness on this night!!! Thank you Carolyn for inviting me along, and thank you Susan for making me feel so welcome. I will be back again, and again, and again!
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