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Lena Bloch

   Active Dreaming   

      By Karl Helander

American Ensemble

Photo courtesy of Artist

Lena Bloch is accustomed to flying. Since immigrating to Israel in 1990, the Moscow-born jazz saxophonist, composer, and educator has been on a remarkable journey in music, first across Europe, then to Massachusetts for graduate studies, and finally to Brooklyn, NY, where she resides and teaches today. While Bloch’s debut album, Feathery (Thirteenth Note Records, 2014), hewed close to its roots in 50s-era cool jazz, her newest release, Heart Knows (Fresh Sound New Talent Records, 2017), feels less idiomatic, casting a wider net of visually and emotionally vivid music. The album features Bloch on tenor saxophone, Cameron Brown on bass, Billy Mintz on drums, and Russ Lossing, who, in addition to playing piano, split the composing duties with Bloch.

Composition credits should also be given to these four musicians as parts of a whole, since much of what is captured on Heart Knows was improvised. The quartet employs an approach called “spontaneous composition,” a form of group improvisation in which the musicians compose on the spot to fill deliberate gaps in the song’s structure.

Bloch and bandmates began performing together roughly three years before recording Heart Knows, building up a unique repertoire that leaves ample room for new possibilities in each performance. In recording this album, the quartet went so far as to capture each track in just one take. “What we were trying to do was to open up,” says Bloch, “ . . . to breathe deeply and listen to each other and see what happens.” The resulting improvisations seem devoted to exploring the essence of each composition, whether in the noir-evoking, slow-motion drama of “French Twist”; the title track’s fluid, intertwining balladry; the searching ascension and gospel-level heights of “Counter-Clockwise”; or the labyrinthine thrill-ride of “Three Treasures.”

This mobility between written and improvised passages is perhaps most apparent in the album’s opening track, “Lateef Suite,” a mysterious and soulful three-part ode to the late, great Yusef Lateef (who, along with Lee Konitz, was a vital mentor to Bloch). “After the written part ends, there is no pre-arranged system of what’s going to happen,” Bloch says. “We can also switch the [written] parts. We can put them in the middle or at the beginning, or just not use them at all.” This composition method could lead to cacophony in less masterful hands, but even the most tense moments on Heart Knows sound full of purpose and motion. “I think that spontaneous composing, at a certain level of musicianship . . . can sound very natural, very organic, and [laughs] really good!”

A deep connection and trust between the musicians is palpable in these performances, which perpetually spring forward with interplay, while also possessing a certain stillness—the sound of listening. Looking back on the recording sessions, Bloch says of her fellow musicians, “I felt elevated above the ground just by their personal depth. I was thinking ‘Okay, here, I don’t have to worry. They won’t drop me. They won’t drop anything.’”

© 2018 Chamber Music Magazine