Alan Blackman and I met for the first time on a sunny morning in January at Ceremony Coffee in Mount Vernon, Baltimore. He arrived wearing a tweed cap, blue sweater, jeans, and brown shoes, giving off a somewhat cerebral vibe. We greeted one another, shook hands, and then sat down for our interview about his latest album, Sacred Spaces.
A native of Virginia, Blackman attended University of Miami before moving to Maryland for his master’s degree in jazz piano performance at Towson University. He has been composing since his teens, when his teacher suggested he begin trying new chords to some of the pieces they were working on. It was his “aha!” moment. As he puts it “I could finally express myself through my music, rather than the other way around.”
He discovered his love for composition. And over the years, he has been a mainstay in the Washington-Baltimore area. He has performed at Blues Alley, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and and at many festivals, from San Francisco to New York. He has won various awards and honors and has taught jazz at Howard Community College since 2001; previously he taught jazz combos at Towson University from 1999.
Sacred Spaces is Blackman’s fifth album, following Shadow Dance (1999), Turning Point (2010), Coastal Suite (2020), and Alone Together (2020). It was recorded in three days at the “sacred space” of a Jewish temple, Temple B’nai Israel located in Easton, Maryland, during the summer of 2021. The connection to the space was through his bandmate bassist Max Murray, who had discovered the temple on a gig.
Notably, Blackman recorded, mixed, and mastered the project himself. When I asked if he would do it again, Blackman firmly said he would not. “Too many things to think about.” He, drummer Frank Russo, and Murray worked through a long list of songs to whittle down the selection to the nine they’d eventually record. They workshopped, improvised, tweaked, and played with the songs Blackman had written, some over the course of several years, and others during the pandemic. “Shalom” was even written with the specific recording location in mind. With that composition, Blackman wanted to channel the “spirit of the space”.
The three met on a gig fifteen years ago and have been working together ever since. Of their relationship Blackman muses, “I want to hang out with them outside of work too. We have a group text and sometimes one of us will send a text on a random day saying, ‘I’m really thankful for you guys.’”
A few years ago, the trio attended a retreat at Avalon Farms in Vermont. There they had a rehearsal space all to themselves, and in the evenings, they had dinner with their fellow artists in residence and talked till the wee hours of the morning. The cover artwork photo is a product of one such retreat in Banff National Park in Canada, where Blackman spent two weeks “immersed in total beauty”.
There is no doubt that the role of nature and its sacredness are at the core of this album. Blackman weaves a journey of sound, each song performing as a character in the story of nature, as told through Blackman’s perceptive eye, or, should I say, ear.
The listener is guided along the craggily mountain tops, the cotton candy fingers of the clouds, and the stuff of dreams…
One of his songs did indeed come to him in a dream…it’s aptly called “Dream Within A Dream,” the title of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, who was fascinated by the “dream state,” the place between waking and sleeping…Blackman explains that upon awaking from a vivid dream, he saw the sheet music for the entire piece laid out before him. He got out of bed, wrote the chords down and played the composition from start to finish.
“Shenandoah,” the third track on the album, was the tune with which he and his bandmates warmed up each day. They experimented with styles, tempos, and keys. Blackman describes it as their “palate cleanser.” Why this song? His mother always liked it, and he was attracted to the melody.
Blackman goes on to explain that the tune titled “Eleven” is “a compositional experiment where I endeavored to compose a song that was 11 measures long–the idea being that it will break me out of predictable 4 bar phrases.” It might be the piece where one can most hear the influence of pianist Keith Jarrett, who is one of Blackman’s major inspirations. There is a sense of mystery, a holding back, yet the beat is strong and sexy. It could possibly conjure up the image of the beating wings of a bird of prey. The natural quality paired with dissonant tones, gives one the impression that the song was improvised, with each note coming to Blackman in the present moment.
“Sun Drawing Water” and “In The Dying Light” especially illustrate the effect that nature has had on Blackman. They are my personal favorites – bright and airy, and fresh. Russo plays drums with a hint of Latin swing, which lends a sensual dimension to the pieces. Blackman wrote these pieces with images of the sun’s rays bursting through the clouds in mind, and that soft end of day light coming through the window of his home studio.
A bonus track of “Shenandoah” provides a lullaby-like conclusion to the album. With this final track, we feel we’ve returned home after a sacred walk alongside Blackman and his sidemen. Our journey complete, we have truly experienced the various tones and colors of Blackman’s expression of himself and of the spaces he loves.
In addition to being available to stream on Bandcamp, Sacred Spaces will be released as a limited-edition CD. Blackman is currently working on his first jazz composition book tentatively entitled Changing Standards, which will be accompanied by an audio CD of his original arrangements. Read more about Alan Blackman at https://msac.org/directory/artists/alan-blackman.
–by Mariah Bonner
Mariah Bonner is a vocalist and recording artist. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland and moved to France with her family at age 10. In Paris, she studied ballet and theater as a teenager and started a career in fashion modeling. She graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and started her artistic career in Los Angeles in film and television. Now based in her home town, she has been performing vocally at various venues, including Keystone Korner, where she did a live recording of her third album. She was the subject of an artist profile in the Summer 2022 issue of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance newsletter. Mariah is delighted to contribute BJA newsletter for the first time.