Johnathan Blake: Passage review – a vibrant tribute to his father

(Blue Note)
The Philadelphia drummer reunites his much-praised quintet for an uplifting tribute, featuring lush vibes, funky jams and irrepressible energy

Band-leading drummers have a tendency to be over-present, to get in the way of the actual music. Not so Johnathan Blake. The 47-year-old Philadelphian, who has backed everyone from Lonnie Smith to Q-Tip, remains a team player even with his own group. Passage reconvenes Pentad, the quintet behind Blake’s much-praised 2021 Blue Note debut, Homeward Bound: bassist Dezron Douglas, vibes player Joel Ross, Cuban pianist David Virelles and alto sax tyro Immanuel Wilkins. A tribute to his late father, violinist John Blake Jr, it’s a vibrant, varied set in which all five players get to shine.

Its centrepiece is the title track, composed by John Blake Jr but never recorded, which moves from a ruminative intro to a rumbustious jam in which Wilkins evokes the bebop melodicism of Charlie Parker and later atonal developments. Although never sombre, there’s a wistful theme to much of the album – there on Muna & Johna’s Playtime, a nod to Blake’s children; on Tears I Cannot Hide, a composition by the late Ralph Peterson Jr (another drummer) and a showcase for Ross’s lush vibes; and on the funky West Berkely St, named after Blake’s childhood home. For contrast comes the Latinate Tiempos and the jaunty, itchy Groundhog Day. A warm, uplifting celebration.

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