Philadelphia-based drummer Johnathan Blake makes his debut as a leader with The Eleventh Hour, a collection of modern post-bop tunes. (Buy it from Amazon.) The imagery of gears (taken from an antique watch) that adorns the front and back covers, as well as the disc itself, is apt, as Blake is a rock-steady timekeeper whose hi-hat ticks relentlessly through tracks like “Rio’s Dream” and the opening title track, even as he throws in subtle yet attention-getting adornments to the primary beat. All but three of the tunes are his, as well; “Dexter’s Tune” is by Randy Newman, “Blue News” is by trumpeter Tom Harrell (who’s employed Blake before, and who guests on that cut and one other), and the album’s closing track, “Canvas,” is by keyboardist Robert Glasper, who likewise makes three appearances—on “The Eleventh Hour,” his own piece, and “Time to Kill.” There are two other guests present: Grégoire Maret plays harmonica on the first and last cuts, and Tim Warfield plays tenor sax on “No Left Turn.” The core band, though, could honestly have gotten by with no guests at all, as they repeatedly demonstrate: it’s built around a front line of alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, joined by keyboardist (piano and Fender Rhodes) Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street. All these men have long-established reputations in the current jazz scene, and they play extremely well together, with the suppleness of a working band and no unseemly jostling for the spotlight.
If this album has a flaw, it’s that it’s occasionally a touch too smooth—not in the sense of smooth jazz, though some of Harrell’s flugelhorn passages on “Time to Kill” get a little Chuck Mangione-esque at times—and unwilling to throw real surprises at the listener. There are some exciting turnarounds, and Blake knows how to throw a grenade-like fill into the middle of a passage to keep players from coasting, but the melodies are frequently too singsong, lacking the force of the rhythm that underpins them. Everyone is genteel, even when they’re aiming to burn out, as on “Of Things to Come,” which strives for the intensity of John Coltrane but winds up closer to the more glib, knowing territory of Branford Marsalis. (That in itself isn’t a bad thing, of course; Marsalis and his various bands have proven more than capable of raising a listener’s pulse, and Blake’s group does the same.)
“Of Things to Come” is also notable for being the only keyboard-less track, bringing bassist Street to the fore. That’s a welcome adjustment—his tone is forceful and his presence assertive, without being overly dominant in the mix or the arrangement. And the album’s longest track, “Freefall,” allows the group to erupt into the roiling freedom they deny themselves throughout much of the rest of the disc, particularly Hays, who takes a killer, extended piano solo as Blake hammers the kit behind him.
The Eleventh Hour may be slightly overlong at nearly 70 minutes, and it may feature too many guest appearances, thus distracting from the core band’s individual skills and empathetic group playing, but it’s a serious debut full of music worth hearing more than once. And while it’s firmly within the modern post-bop tradition, it’s both conventionally melodic and rhythm-focused enough to appeal to an audience consisting of more than just other jazz musicians.
Here’s the title track: