Drummer Johnathan Blake Makes Blue Note Debut with Elite Quintet, Pentad, on ‘Homeward Bound’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Drummer Johnathan Blake has been a major force behind so many important albums and it’s only fitting that he gets the spotlight as the leader for his Blue Note debut, Homeward Bound, his fourth as a bandleader. Consider that the Philadelphia-raised artist has collaborated with Pharoah Sanders, Jaleel Shaw, Chris Potter, and countless others. Importantly, he was behind the kit on last year’s Maria Schneider’s Grammy-winning Data Lords, with the late Dr. Lonnie Smith for Smith’s last three albums including this year’s Breathe, and with Kenny Barron and Dave Holland for 2018’s Concentric Circles. Blake has been a vital member of Barron’s trio for nearly 15 years. That’s just a small piece of Blake’s litany of credits. He’s still early in his career and now presents his composing skills in addition to his steady, fiery, work on the traps. Of course, with his cred well established, he taps an elite group of collaborators for the band he dubbed Pentad. They are renowned bassist Dezron Douglas, Cuban-born keyboardist David Virelles and two of Blue Note’s rising young talents, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross.

A one-minute drum intro (“In the Beginning There Was The Drum’) presages the gorgeous title track, penned for saxophonist Jimmy Greene’s daughter, Ana Grace, whose life was taken at the age of six during the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012. The expressive, radiant tune features an odd meter signature, and typically mesmerizing trading lines from Ross and Wilkins, two who often play together, and then Virelles, who often plays the wild card, with his unexpected but judicious note choices. Blake carries forth in his lyrical mode throughout. The tune, released as a single, is reminiscent of a melody Ana Grace might have hummed as she bounced into the room. “She was always singing,” says Blake, “any room she went in, she would just sing.” 

“Rivers & Parks” begins with Virelles on synths underpinning a vibe where all Pentad members groove and swing, with Wilkins stepping forward the most forcibly. By now we are well accustomed to Wilkins’ searching but precise style, one of the most self-assured improvisers on today’s scene as heard on his Blue Note release Omega, Orrin Evans’ recent The Magic of Now, or James Francies Blue Note debut, Purest Form, to name just a few. (All reviewed on these pages) 

Douglas’ “Shakin’ The Biscuits” is a funky tune with Virelles on Rhodes comping underneath staccato phrases weaved by Wilkins and Ross while the leader keeps the complex rhythms navigable for all. The contrasting “Abiyoyo,” a traditional South African children’s song, is a lullaby of sorts, which depicts the sensitive, restrained approach of the quintet. Blake’s “LLL,” nods to the late drummer Lawrence ‘Lo’ Leathers as a stirring post-bop number that has Blake stirring a frenzy with his sticks, emulated by Virelles on his animated piano excursion, and capped by Ross who wields hi mallets in an amazing flourish over Virelles’ comping. Blake’s intent was to deliver a fuller, more choral sound and this tune is the epitome of such. Blake reworks Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out,” which features a soaring, reaching Wilkins s to wonderful comping from Virelles and stirring, vibrant work from the rhythm section. 

.By turns elegantly lyrical to vigorously present, Blake tends to favor the former here, a testament both to his compositional prowess and his humble approach in letting his bandmates have their say. Listen closely though as Blake’s drumming is ever inventive and essential to Pentad’s sound. 

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