CLEVELAND, Ohio — David Ake’s album“Bridges’’ is showing up on a ton of year-end best-of lists.
You almost expect that from someone who’s been making music his whole life, and whose band includes some of the best in jazz – including tenor sax player Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, as well as alto sax player Peter Epstein, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Mark Ferber.
All of them have pretty impressive pedigrees and resumes at least as strong as Coltrane, who, yes, is the son of the legendary John Coltrane.
Only one, however, is a professor and chairman of Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Music. That would be Ake.
“Case has traditionally been focused on early music,’’ said Ake in a call from the Shaker Heights home he and his family have shared since moving here from the University of Reno (Nev.) in July 2013.
“Over the last few years, they’ve started a center for the study of popular music,’’ Ake said. “When they did a search for a new chair about this time last year, I think they noticed I’m also a jazz scholar.’’
And that’s scholar with a capital P – and a lower case hd. Prof. Ake’s doctorate is in musicology, and his written a few books about music. But first and foremost, he’s a musician.
Clearly, musical scales aren’t his only dilemma.
“I’ve been trying to balance this [being a musician and an educator],’’ Ake said. “For a long time, I was just a jazz pianist. I lived in Munich, Los Angeles, New York. That’s all I did was play jazz piano.
“My knowledge of playing and composing feeds into my work on music history, and vice versa,’’ he said. “What I have found is that one of these interests comes to the fore at one time. I can’t do everything all at the same time.’’
With that in mind, Ake for the moment is focusing on being the chairman of Case’s music department.
But that’s not stopping him from enjoying the accolades that have been cast on “Bridges,’’ which was released on Posi-Tone records in May 2013.
Jazz records by their very nature are unusual, and “Bridges’’ raises that to new highs. One review talks about “the convergence of cacophony and structure’’ in the album, which probably is best described as dissonant jazz.
“It’s really the balance of freedom and order,’’ Ake said. “That’s what I’m going for. I set up these structures for these extraordinary improvisers, and we see what happens.’’
But for that to happen – and to come off as well as it does – there has to be an unbelievable amount of trust in each other.
“I’ve known these guys since the mid-1980s,’’ Ake said. “Ralph Alessi the trumpeter, Ravi Coltrane, Scott Colley — most of us went to the California Institute of the Arts.
“Trust in yourself, trust in the musicians and trust in the audience,’’ Ake said. “Things may get weirder than you’re used to, but hang in there and something wondrous might happen.’’
He’s right about that. “Bridges’’ has a feel and a sound all its own. “That’s because it’s something I’m calling dissonant jazz. Certain songs, like ‘Dodge’ and ‘Boats,’ seem to be almost sonic versions of a European roundabout, which goes off in different directions but begins with the same starting point.
“Sometimes, that’s written in,’’ Ake said. “At some point, ‘Let’s head back here, to Letter B or whatever.’ Other times, it could be suggested by whatever somebody’s playing.
“Again, it’s all about trust,’’ he said.
Ake hasn’t played out since moving to Cleveland, but that could change soon.
“Last time I played was the Reno Jazz Festival back in April,’’ he said. “I’m getting a little itchy. I don’t mind not being on the road anymore, but I miss having a band and playing, and I know there are some great players in Cleveland.’’
Sounds like another bridge is about to be crossed, eh?