Homeward Bound (Blue Note)

Johnathan Blake

Released October 29, 2021

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Johnathan Blake‘s debut release on Blue Note Records signals shifting tides for a career that’s yet to crest. The drummer, composer, and progressive bandleader continually refines and renews an expression bonded to the lineage of Black music that fluoresces across Homeward Bound. Warmth of phrasing abounds as Blake layers a sound that’s at once relaxed and urgent. Alongside an innate ride cymbal, his melodic treatment of the drum kit reflects a generations old understanding of the instrument and allows his compositions to engage the myriad artists who bring them life.

Heralded by NPR Music as “the ultimate modernist,” the Philadelphia-raised artist has collaborated with Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, Tom Harrell, Hans Glawischnig, Avishai Cohen, Donny McCaslin, Linda May Han Oh, Jaleel Shaw, Chris Potter, Maria Schneider, Alex Sipiagin, Kris Davis and countless other distinctive voices. DownBeat once wrote, “It’s a testament to Blake’s abilities that he makes his presence felt in any context.” A frequent presence on Blue Note records over the past several years, Blake has contributed his strong, limber pulse and airy precision to multiple leader releases from Blue Note artists including Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Breathe (2021), All in My Mind (2018) and Evolution (2016) and Kenny Barron’s Concentric Circles (2018), the latter whose trio Blake has been a vital member for nearly 15 years.

Homeward Bound features Blake’s band Pentad, a quintet of musicians whose expressions inhabit that mystery of time and space. Pentad’s core trio is comprised of longtime collaborator and friend Dezron Douglas whose strong yet reflexive bass presence saturates each track, and acclaimed Cuban-born keyboardist David Virelles on piano, Rhodes and Minimoog. Blake’s Blue Note label mates Immanuel Wilkins and Joel Ross complete the multigenerational quintet on alto saxophone and vibraphone. Though distinct in their expressions, the rising star artists share a cooperative quality intrinsic to their improvising.

“The name represents us as five individuals coming together for a common cause: trying to make the most honest music as possible,” says Blake who assembled the band with the intention of composing for a fuller, more explicit chordal sound than his past projects have featured. The result is a wildly intuitive, tight sound that embraces spontaneity and relies on trust.

“I think the sound also comes from years of Dezron and David and me playing together, and the whole history of Immanuel and me knowing each other from the Philly days, and then Immanuel’s hookup with Joel.” Even Blake and Ross had their own hookup going before forming Pentad from a Jazz Gallery commission the leader received several years earlier. “There’s a bit of history with everybody in the group, so when we come to play together, it’s a unique band sound.”

Opening with a tender foundational gesture from Douglas, the album’s title track celebrates the short effervescent life of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene. Daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene and flautist Nelba Marquez-Greene, Ana Grace perished in the Sandy Hook tragedy nearly a decade ago. For Blake, who recalls the moment of her birth, Ana Grace’s time on earth resonates. “When little Ana was born, I remember what a blessing she was,” says Blake, who was on the road with Greene at the time in Tom Harrell’s band. “She had such a lively presence. So when I heard she’d been taken away, it affected me and I started writing this tune.”

Reminiscent of a melody she might have hummed as she bounced into the room, “Homeward Bound (for Ana Grace)” prompts joyous and contemplative trades between Ross and Wilkins, a luminescent solo from Virelles and a feature from Blake just as effervescent as the spirit it honors. “She was always singing,” says Blake, “any room she went in, she would just sing.”

Another of the album’s buoyant melodies surfaces on “Rivers & Parks.” Featuring solo contributions from Ross, Wilkins, Virelles, and Douglas, respectively, the composition honors works by Sam Rivers and Aaron Parks. At his home in New Jersey, Blake had been playing Rivers’ “Cyclic Episode” and Parks’ “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” on repeat when a melody of his own emerged. Later he realized all three tunes had in common their 16-bar form. “I didn’t even plan to write a tune like that,” he says. “I guess I was very inspired by listening to those two compositions.”

Throughout Homeward Bound, the artists tangle avenues along what’s grounded and what’s unbound. Wilkins and Blake spark an open dialogue at the start of Douglas original “Shakin’ the Biscuits,” playing off mood colors from Virelles. Laying down the ground rules at 45 seconds into the track, Douglas brings everyone into the groove. Virelles allows textural choices to influence where he takes the music, playing piano, Rhodes and minimoog at different moments.

Soul-cleansing and meditative, “Abiyoyo” reflects Blake’s take on the traditional South African folktale. The chart had been written in 6/8 but, for the recording, the leader was hearing — and feeling — something different. “I wanted it to be something you could feel almost as a lullaby,” he says. “I was hearing this slow 3, and immediately the rest of the band caught the vibe. This wasn’t a piece we were gonna burn out on solos. It was a tone poem.” That burner would happen later on. Blake introduces “LLL,” a dedication to the late drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers, in a swinging gesture of grace and conviction. Limelighting highest level interactivity among band members and solos from Virelles and Ross, the tune is a channel for the vibraphonist’s signature arcs and turns and high-velocity lyricism.

Aligned with his artistry, Blake’s arrangement of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” bonds an iconic vamp and enduring melody with the drummer’s intuitive feel and phrasing as well as his harmonic instincts. “It’s one of my favorite songs,” he says. “That melody just plays itself.” The band’s treatment of the 1982 hit reveals critical homework on the part of its younger members. “The only people who were aware of the tune were me and Dezron (laughs),” says Blake. “But they really got inside it. Immanuel played his butt off. He went to some different places.”

Above all else, Homeward Bound is a narrative celebration of life and legacy. “I wanted to create a record where people would get inside my head,” says Blake. “I want them to see the story I was trying to tell. That’s my hope.”

Track Listing:

1. In The Beginning Was The Drum (Jonathan Blake) 0:59
2. Homeward Bound (For Ana Grace) (Jonathan Blake) 9:13
3. Rivers & Parks (Jonathan Blake) 7:59
4. Shakin’ The Biscuits (Dezron Douglas) 4:51
5. Abiyoyo (South African Traditional) 3:25
6. On The Break (Jonathan Blake) 1:03
7. LLL (Jonathan Blake) 6:10
8. Steppin’ Out (Joe Jackson) 9:43


Immanuel Wilkins: alto saxophone

Joel Ross: vibraphone

David Virelles: piano

Dezron Douglas: bass

Jonathan Blake: drums

Produced by Johnathan Blake
Co-Produced by Jimmy Katz/Giant Step Arts
Recorded by Tom Tedesco
Mixed & Mastered by Dave Darlington


Drummer Johnathan Blake is a rising jazz star with a series of impressive sideman credits and solo recordings. The latest, Homeward Bound, is his Blue Note debut, and befitting of one of his mentors, the recently deceased organist (and Blue Note star) Dr. Lonnie Smith.

Homeward Bound features alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, keyboardist David Virelles, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and upright bassist Dezron Douglas, but it’s Blake who sets the table with his one-minute solo, “In the Beginning Was the Drum.” The drummer’s subsequent title composition then digs deeper. After an introduction by Douglas, he and Blake set a 5/8-timed cadence that inspires solo trades between Wilkins and Ross and a piano break by Virelles, who doubles on Fender Rhodes throughout the stately piece.

Blake’s other originals include the evocative “Rivers & Parks,” on which everyone except him impressively solos; “On the Break,” a trio interlude with Douglas and Virelles; and the quintet showcase “LLL.” That fiery track is ignited by the drummer’s propulsive intro, fanned by its piano and vibes solos, and kept from spreading out of control by the anchoring lines of Wilkins and Douglas. The bassist also contributes “Shakin’ the Biscuits,” which nears free-jazz territory before its blues-based theme, with Virelles adding MiniMoog to his acoustic and electric piano figures.

The Blake-arranged “Abiyoyo” is his take on a traditional South African theme, with an intro recalling Max Roach’s “The Drum Also Waltzes,” and Homeward Bound ends with a surprising take on Joe Jackson’s 1982 pop hit “Steppin’ Out.” Virelles plays an abstract piano intro before stating the vocal melody within the 6/8-timed rhythms of Douglas and Blake, distancing the feel from the original. The 10-minute closer becomes a showcase for Wilkins, whose searching middle solo includes some creative squawks, before Blake’s assertive flurries take the proceedings home.

Bill Meredith (JazzTimes)