I wrote liner notes for saxophonist Lena Bloch’s debut CD. Check out this great album featuring tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch with guitarist Dave Miller, and long-time compadres bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Billy Mintz. (Did I really say “compadres”?)
“In jazz”, muses Lena Bloch, “many opposites come together: mind and feeling, responsibility and abandonment, looseness and precision, improvisation and composition. I just love that.”
What a perfect way to describe Lena’s long-overdue debut CD. Lena, Dave, Cameron and Billy are masters of technique and capable of great musical intellect; but they understand that those qualities exist only to serve the greater goals of feeling and spontaneity. Through the delicate balance of opposites, they create art that is in the moment, yet timeless: a perfect tribute to Lena’s musical forebears, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Lena immigrated to Israel in 1989, attending the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. At the start of the Golf War she fled to Holland. “In Holland, I practiced constantly and ate up the great Utrecht Library collection of recorded jazz.”
In 1991, she moved to Germany, where she was accepted by the prestigious Cologne Conservatory. There she found two mentors: drummer Keith Copeland and trumpeter John Marshall. She began gigging with them, as well as with the drummers Alvin Queen and Steve Reid. She also toured with the German ethno-rock pioneer band “Embryo”, playing Arabic and Turkish classical music, and started her first quartet.
Around this time Lena met Lee Konitz. His impact would be deep and everlasting. “He introduced me to the music of Warne Marsh…. What Lee had, and what I heard in Warne’s playing, was this unity of profound knowledge and profound feeling. It was the ultimate sound for me.”
In 1994, Lena received a full scholarship to attend a summer jazz program in North America, where she studied with Yusef Lateef. She was offered an academic scholarship to attend full time, but for personal reasons she returned to Germany. “I had a hard time living, although I kept playing.”
Lena returned to North America in 1999 on a full scholarship to the prestigious Banff Workshop in Canada where she played sessions with Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Ari Hoenig, and Kenny Werner.
Back in Cologne, she graduated from the Cologne Conservatory. Over the next several years she continued to compose, as well as play and record with her quartet, winning several accolades and awards.
In 2003 Lena attended U. Mass, Amherst as a graduate student, receiving a teaching assistantship. She moved to New York in 2008 and began playing with several Tristano disciples: Ted Brown, Connie Crothers, and Joe Solomon. She now lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she has widened her circle and become an active participant in one of the most fertile and interesting jazz scenes of recent memory.
Feathery begins, appropriately, with Hi Lee, Lena’s tribute to her mentor and good friend. The huge bass sound and swinging, melodic phrases that open the program are instantly recognizable as those of Cameron Brown. Listen, next, to Lena and guitarist Dave Miller as their improvised phrases intertwine, creating a spontaneous counterpoint that sounds composed. (Just one example of those opposites Lena spoke of.) Billy Mintz’s responsive drumming rises and falls with the intensity of Lena and Dave’s interaction. It’s almost impossible to imagine any other drummer “allowing” this piece to develop so organically and completely.
Rubato, by Dave Miller, is a vehicle for collective free improvisation of the sort Tristano pioneered. “Dave’s has extraordinary empathy and intuition,” Lena says. “He has exciting melodic ideas and can improvise harmonically, which is a rare quality.”
Cameron Brown contributes Baby Suite, in which an intriguing melodic line is interspersed with solos approached in a fascinating variety of ways: Cameron’s virtuosic solo bass improvisation; Billy’s masterful brush solo; Dave’s ideas of bell-like clarity that build with the rhythm section; and finally Lena’s thoughtful and assured linear explorations, during which the entire band modulates as one into a medium tempo groove with no set changes.
Of Cameron, Lena comments: “His sound and approach have always fascinated me. He has such translucent beauty in his tone, this lightness, precision, projection out of the deep, and – oh, how he swings!”
Lena effectively reharmonizes Gene de Paul’s Star Eyes as Starry Eyed. “I was intensely thinking of Warne Marsh when I wrote it,” she notes.
Marshmallow, a rarely played composition by Marsh himself, follows. It’s easy to hear why this great tune is underplayed, with its challenging rhythmic displacements and angular lines. Dave’s compelling solo avoids the inherent traps of a tune based on a classic standard such as Cherokee. Instead he probes for new ways through these very common harmonic changes.
Lena explains the pensive and dark Farewell to Arms: “The title relates to a certain point in life when you no longer care about protecting your own ‘self.’ You give up all your ‘arms’ and go unprotected, only giving what you have to give.”
After this lovely introspection, Ted Brown’s Featherbed is a delightful release, beginning with Billy’s melodic drum solo. Following their relaxed yet precise unison statement of the head (there are those opposites again) Lena and Dave solo in turn, supported by the telepathic team of Cameron and Billy, whose forty-year friendship is audible in every beat. Cameron’s walking solo is a lesson in how it’s done.
There are no solos on the lovely ballad, Beautiful You, composed by Billy Mintz. Instead, the melody is etched and ornamented in many different ways by one or more of the musicians.
Lena says, “Billy Mintz had done only a couple of gigs with my quartet before this date. It feels as if playing with him goes beyond conventional time and space… an incredible continuity. Billy is a spontaneous orchestrator.”
Feathery closes with a brief reprise of Hi Lee, a reminder that, while she is dedicated to musical growth and exploration, Lena’s roots in the jazz tradition are strong and deep.
“Our recording was done all in one room, no headphones, in one or two takes. There was such mutual trust, intuition, and interaction. We hope to keep this ‘organic’ quartet together.”
Indeed, we the listeners should be so fortunate. Getting to know Lena has been a pleasure and a privilege for me, as I’m sure getting to know her music will be for you. I, for one, am glad she finally made it to Brooklyn, from Russia, with love.