I first met the tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch in fast company — alongside Joel Press, Brad Linde, Ted Brown, Michael Kanan. And I was impressed immediately by her expertise and willingness to explore the unknown, what Sam Parkins called “precision and abandon.”
I haven’t managed to make it to as many of Lena’s gigs as I would like, but I made a special effort to get to this one: at a new club, Somethin’ Jazz (very nice!) on East 52nd Street between Second and Third Avenues, a ten-dollar cover and a ten-dollar minimum, with a new group for Lena — guitarist Dave Miller, drummer Billy Mintz, and bassist Putter Smith. (With this group, she will be recording her debut CD, UNFOREHEARD.) On the final two performances of this evening, pianist Roberta Piket sat in, most eloquently.
The music created wasn’t a reheating of the familiar. In fact, the first two selections were floating inquiries rather than boxed-in statements of formulas, and I felt that the musicians had embarked on improvisational journeys even when the chord structures beneath the performances were familiar. Lena guided the group but was also a gentle participant who didn’t demand the prerogatives of A Leader. Each song embodied a gentle communal awareness, with a crucial openness-to-experience that we could feel.
Much of my pleasure was also in encountering musicians I had not known well if at all before this evening. I had heard Putter Smith on several recordings, and musicians whose opinions I respect had spoken most fervently of him, but I was not prepared for the variety of sonorities he created, the sweet validity of his sound. Dave Miller, bless him, didn’t feel compelled to fill space with notes and runs. I could feel him thinking, quietly, “What might I add here? Perhaps it could be a lovely silence.”
Billy Mintz is a revelation. My drumming heroes of the past and present keep time, create colors, and drive the band forward — all noble aspirations. Although Billy is intuitively connected to the rhythms that the band might float on, he is never mechanical, never content to create predictable patterns. He struck me most strongly as thinking of what color, what texture, would best fit the situation — making it happen and then moving on to something new, never entrapping himself or the band. He is soft-spoken and intent in person, equally so at the drums. Like Dave and Putter, he is poetic without being showy, generous yet spare.
All I will say about Roberta Piket is that I want to hear her play more and again: she has a great deal of technique and accuracy, but it never dominates her music. Her soloing and accompaniment were elegant but not fussy; she added so much without calling attention to herself.
Lena was free and brave, questing towards something whose name she might not have known, but getting somewhere satisfying — whether humming almost in a whisper, echoing the songs of a mythological bird, or showing that she, too, could follow the Tristano – Konitz – Marsh – Brown path without being hemmed in by its rules and obligations.
At the end of the evening, I felt as if I had witnessed art both translucent and powerful, with echoes of Lester Young and Brahms, of Eastern meditation and collective invention: strong but never harsh, sweetly fulfilling in its desire to ask questions without worrying about conclusions.
Some of my more “traditionally-minded” readers might think this music more open-ended than they would like . . . and they are free, as always, to recall Chaucer’s gentle encouragement to choose another page. But if they embrace the bravery that animates the jazz they so love, I invite them to choose a performance based on “familiar chord changes” and start there. I predict that open-hearted listening will make their hearts more light and more full.
Here is the music that made me write the elated words you have, I hope, read.
Lena’s questing original, 33:
Billy’s BEAUTIFUL YOU:
Ted Brown’s FEATHER BED (based on the chord changes of YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO):
Lena’s mournful reharmonization of STAR EYES — making it both deep and surprising:
MARSHMALLOW (based on CHEROKEE — by Warne Marsh with the bridge written by Lee Konitz:
Dave Miller’s deep searching RUBATO:
Roberta Piket joined in for Lena’s own HI LEE (based on HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN):
And Lena concluded the evening’s explorations with SUBCONSCIOUS-LEE (written by Mr. Konitz but not titled by him — based on WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?):
These musicians take us with them on their voyages. I am exceedingly grateful.
May your happiness increase.