Shut down the streets, it's time for a Block Party! The latest album from saxophonist and clarinetist Dan Block is a joyous event fully in keeping with the warm spirit of its namesake: a time to join together with other families, meet with your neighbors, and enjoy a timeless tradition. In this case, the tradition spans several generations of jazz, the neighbors are fellow transplants from Block's native St. Louis to the jazz mecca of New York City, and the family is, well, family - in this case, brother and guitarist Rob Block.
Block Party (due out January 19 from Miles High Records) is, at heart, a celebration of the Block siblings, recording together for the first time in their lives. Their collaboration shows off an easy camaraderie laced with a fiery competitive spark natural to brothers. The pair combine with the kind of unspoken communication that can only come from shared roots, qualities that many musicians spend decades working together to achieve but which comes naturally from two artists who've grown up in the same household.
"We have a certain chemistry when we play together," Dan Block says of working with his brother. We fell into it much later. "We're very different people but he brings something intangible out in me, and vice versa. You're completely free to be yourself when you're sharing the stage with your brother."
Sharing a bloodline with your sidemen is a rare opportunity, but sharing a hometown may be the next best thing. That explains why St. Louis native Neal Caine provides such a strong backbone for the band; best known as the longtime bassist for Harry Connick Jr.'s band, Caine's path paralleled Rob Block's, detouring through New Orleans on the way to New York City. Tokyo-born pianist Tadataka Unno and in demand drummer Aaron Kimmel don't share those same roots but they do have a common sensibility, one that doesn't get hung up on one era or style of jazz.
"We're all conversant in the whole history of the music," Block declares, an attitude that has endeared him to the similarly all-embracing Wynton Marsalis, with whom he performs regularly in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Block feels comfortable expressing himself in traditional Dixieland jazz bands as well as bop, modal jazz and beyond. That wide scope is reflected in the repertoire on Block Party, which draws from several decades' worth of source material while maintaining a cohesive sound.
Block's lyrical clarinet provides a welcoming tone to being the album on the somewhat obscure standard "Dinner For One Please, James," a favorite of singers like Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt. It's followed by the Latin rhythms of "No, No, No," an unknown piece by nonagenarian songwriter Phil Springer, with whom Block has forged a close working relationship and friendship. Best known for "How Little We Know" and the perennial "Santa Baby," Springer was thrilled that Block wanted to interpret a different tune from among his stacks of sheet music. "Phil's a really fine songwriter and a brilliant musician," Block says. "He's one of the few people left who still writes in the tradition of the Great American Songbook."
Block wields the clarinet for a wistful, relaxed take on the Thelonious Monk classic "Light Blue," but the pace picks up via Kimmel's propulsive beat for Gigi Gryce's "Smoke Signal," highlighted by some delightful back and forth between the brothers Block. The pace is maintained for an update of composer Ferde Grofe's "Wonderful One," originally recorded in the 1920s by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra but gien a several-decade refresh in Block's bristling arrangement.
Block also dips back into the early decades of the 20th century for two Walter Donaldson compositions, both of which were recorded by one of the saxophonist's most powerful influences, legendary corentist Bix Beiderbecke. The first, "Beautiful Changes," is transformed into a time-shifting burner that sounds more like something found on a mid-60s Impulse! LP than an antique 78. "Ain't No Land Like Dixieland," on the other hand, retains a sense of burnished nostalgia without forsaking its modern pulse. All of these choices highlight the fact that Block finds inspiration from throughout the jazz timeline, recognizing fertile ground for exploration regardless of how long it's been abandoned.
"So many things were tried and left behind back then," he says. "There was a lot of experimentation at that time, influenced by impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel, but those influences haven't been returned to very much since. But it's still rich territory to explore and use as a point of departure."
"By the Fireside," on the other hand, traverses more well-worn ground, a classic, gritty blues. The angular theme of Block's sole original contribution, "Option Click," reflects the nervy tension the composer feels when confronted with modern technology. Finally, Dan and Rob pair off for a lovely ballad of brotherly love on the album's closing track, the Harold Arlen classic "It Was Written in the Stars."
You can go home again, if the warm and wonderful sounds captured herein are to be believed. And when you do, hope to be received with a celebration as lively and lyrical as Block Party.
Saxophonist/clarinetist Dan Block has a dual reputation in the jazz world: he is well-regarded mainstream player, yet is best known as a specialist in traditional jazz. He's a diverse talent, fitting like a chameleon into a host of musical genres on a variety of instruments. He has worked as a sideman with Toshiko Akiyoshi, Frank Wess, Richard Wyands, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Harry Allen, Jerry Dodgion and Howard Alden. In the more traditional jazz vein he has worked frequently with Vince Giordano, Marty Grosz and Judy Carmichael. Quite a bit of his work has been with singers, performing and recording with the likes of Michael Feinstein, Natalie Cole, Anne Hampton Calloway, Bobby Short, Linda Ronstadt and Rosemary Clooney. Block's clarinet and saxophone have been heard in a number of motion pictures including The Aviator, The Good Shepherd, Revolutionary Road and most recently the critically acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire. He has also played on countless radio and television commercials. He won the 2016 Charlie Parker Award as part of the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop. Block has recorded numerous CDs including his most recent, the Duke Ellington tribute From His World To Mine and the duo project Duality, both on Miles High. Dan Block has the kind of musical focus that onlycomes with real experience. Classically trained at Juilliard, he has played nearly every style and genre of music from Salsa to Caribbean to, Klezmer, which have all come together to form a unique sound: his own.