Daniel Blake’s Unique Path to Intuitive and Enlightened Musical Mastery

Daniel BlakeEvery once in a while I come across a saxophonist new to me who truly blows me away. Thanks to NYC sax maestro Daniel Blake, now is once in a while.

As if performing and touring internationally with artists such as Esperanza Spalding, Anthony Braxton, Kenny Werner, Danilo Perez, Lukas Ligeti, Peter Evans, Ricardo Gallo, and many others wasn’t enough, Daniel is an award-winning composer to boot.

His compositions have garnered recognition by ASCAP and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and have been featured by notable new music ensembles. Most recently, he saw the premier of his work First Beginnings for recorder and interactive 8-channel electronics was premiered at the Electronic Music Foundation’s annual symposium in New York City.

In January 2010 he joined Grammy-nominated artist Julian Lage and has been touring internationally as a composer and saxophonist with this group. Most recently, the band was featured at Montreux Jazz Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, and Newport Jazz festival. He was recently selected to be a featured soloist for Anthony Braxton’s “Trillium E” opera cycle, recorded in March 2010, and performed in June 2011.

His latest recording, The Aquarian Suite is due for release in the fall 2011 for Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records.

The Interview

Doron Orenstein: What was it that inspired you to make music your life?

Dan Blake: I don’t feel like I ever actively made music my life. For me, my life as a creative artist has been an unfolding process of experiencing “music” and “life” as increasingly intertwined. There never really was a question as to what I am to do with my limited time on this earth. This truth is itself extremely inspiring, and in fact this is one of the few areas in my life around which there is complete certainty!

DO: What do you find yourself practicing the most these days?

DB: I always am focusing on long-tones and very basic scale patterns, especially on tenor, as I recently switched to a Conn “Transition” model. This horn makes technique feel a bit more clunky, with the tradeoff being a magnificent tone! Bach violin partitas have really given an alternative non-jazz material for developing double tonguing and integrating overtones into my technique. Also, I’m always trying to get better at circular breathing and multiphonics, two very compelling technical areas I find difficult and full of yet-undiscovered possibilities.

DO: What have you been listening to lately?

DB: I have been trying to get through a pile of incredible new recordings that have been released recently from New York-based artists this past year. Some favorites: The Four Bags’ Forth, Jeremy Udden’s Plainville, Jon Irabagon’s Foxy, and Sam Sadigursky’s Words Project III. I’ve also been listening to and practicing with field recordings of reed players from West Africa, very inspiring!

DO: What would you say is the skill or attribute that’s helped you most as a musician?

DB: The single most important and helpful attitude I’ve tried to cultivate in my musical life is an ability to be open and pay attention to the creative endeavors of others. In short, I’ve learned to keep my eyes and ears open and to know when someone is onto something and to be open to possibly even changing my ways of thinking (gasp!). This way, I can let that question of who “I” am be determined by a process of constant discovery.

If someone tells me to check something out, I try to do it, and I try to go to people’s gigs as much as I can and to follow through when someone says, “we should play sometime.” The fruits of this openness have been borne in my involvement in many diverse creative communities, and in the wonderful friendships that have blossomed from my creative associations.

DO: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?

DB: A great and under-recognized drummer/master improviser with whom I have had the good fortune of working is Nat Mugavero (from Lawrence, MA), who has shared with me the beauty in approaching music from a mindset of “I don’t know”. I have found time and again that he is right. Perhaps the greatest treasure of improvised music is to not know what comes next, and this is so easy to overlook in an efforts to promote and package music in such a competitive marketplace.

Along with this powerful advice, Nat also has reminded me many times on gigs to always remember the masters of the tradition (Armstrong, Parker, Mingus, Monk, etc.), not to copy them but to honor their efforts at playing the unknown when we ourselves play. This marriage of approaches in not knowing on the one hand, and complete faith in the shoulders upon which I stand on the other hand, has led to a more spiritually honest and emotionally fulfilling relationship to my own creative potential and has informed all of my decisions as a saxophonist and composer.

DO: What’s the next musical frontier for Dan Blake

DB: I am thrilled to have been invited by my friends in the Mivos Quartet to compose a piece for saxophone and string quartet. I’ve long wanted to further explore my multiphonic pieces for solo saxophone in a more composed context so that other instruments can orchestrate and augment the vast array of overtones and hidden melodies that may fly by in a solo saxophone performance. This piece will most likely premier in the 2012-13 concert season.

DO: For those new to your music, which recording would you suggest they pick up?

DB: Well, funny you ask as I am very pleased to announce here the release of my latest recording on Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records entitled The Aquarian Suite! This recording features eight new compositions for “chord-less quartet” and is my personal portrait of the post-bop era in modern jazz. The recording features my old friends and fearless improvisers Jason Palmer (trumpet), Jorge Roeder (bass) and Richie Barshay (drums and percussion). We will be touring the East Coast in early December so come out to a show if you can!

DO: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?


  • As I mentioned above, on tenor I play a Conn “Transition” model with a Guy Hawkins mouthpiece refaced by Brian Powell (BG ligature).
  • On soprano I play a Yamaha Custom with a George E. Bundy mouthpiece (Ultimate Ligature) also refaced by Brian. I play Marca reeds (3.5).

Check out the page for the album at http://theaquariansuite.bandcamp.com/album/the-aquarian-suite.

To learn more about Dan and his music, check out his website at www.DanielBlake.net.