Dan Block is high on my list of heroes — lyrical, inventive, quirky, passionate, expert, warm. I could go on, but it would just be prose. Better than prose is his new CD, BLOCK PARTY: A SAINT LOUIS CONNECTION (Miles High Records) which features him on tenor saxophone and clarinet alongside his very talented brother Rob, guitar; Neal Caine, string bass; Tadataka Unno, piano; Aaron Kimmel, drums. And the subtitle? Dan, Rob, and Neal are from the Mound City. And it’s even more of a family affair: Dan’s daughter Emma did the artwork and photography; cousin Joe Schwab (of Euclid Records) wrote the liner note. If you want further evidence of the eminences involved here, Andy Farber and Mark Sherman produced the session; Bill Moss was involved in the mastering.
Dan does so many things well — no, splendidly — that it would be foolish to expect that a CD of his would be monochromatic, although listeners will not feel an artificial reaching after “innovation” from one track to another. But he brings a deeply felt intelligence to his music; his range is wide. Consider the song list: DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE, JAMES (which I associate with Marty Grosz and British dance bands of the Thirties); NO, NO, NO (by the little-known songwriter Phil Springer, who wrote SANTA BABY and HOW LITTLE WE KNOW — read about Springer here); LIGHT BLUE and SMOKE SIGNAL (unhackneyed jazz classics by Monk and Gigi Gryce, respectively); WONDERFUL ONE (by Ferde Grofe, 1922); CHANGES (Walter Donaldson, both associated with Paul Whiteman, the latter with Bix and Bing); BY THE FIRESIDE (a gorgeous Ray Noble melody); OPTION CLICK (Block’s own response to modern technology); THERE AIN’T NO LAND LIKE DIXIELAND (associated with Bix and Tram); IT WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS (lovely Harold Arlen).
The song list might seem homage to Dan’s many working associations, from Twenties recreations to free-blowing contemporary jazz, but all of the performances are at heart melodic, curiously inquiring of the music, treating the originals with love but not as museum pieces. Dan’s spacious imagination does not pop compositions into stylistic cubbyholes (“This goes in the Hank Mobley section; this goes in the Harmony Records file”): the music is animated by affection and ease.
Although I’ve heard and admired Rob Block in person several times in New York, this is a wonderful re-introduction to his lyrical, swinging selves. Like brother Dan, he is technically fluent, yet his phrases breathe and his solos have logical shapes. He plays the guitar; it doesn’t play him. Listen to the fraternal joy on WONDERFUL ONE, for one example. The members of the rhythm section are spectacularly good in duo and trio and as soloists: I found myself listening to several tracks a second and third time to savor what they were doing, memorably uplifting.
As a player, Dan is . . . what superlatives do I write here? He respects melodies but also adores surprises; he never plays a predictable phrase but takes us on his journeys — which are quietly thrilling. I’ve known him as clarinetist, saxophonist, even trumpeter, pianist, and singer, for almost fifteen years now, and a Dan Block performance is something I cherish. The casual but expert arrangements on this CD are also great gifts to us. No piece goes predictably from ensemble to solos to ensemble; each performance contains splendid little landscapes, as solos give way to duets. The result is often elegant but never slick. I’ve been playing and replaying this disc, always with delight. I would even suggest that listeners begin at the end, with the touching duet for the brothers Block on IT WAS WRITTEN IN THE STARS. Obviously the title is true.
May your happiness increase!