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A big-toned, gutsy, hard-swinging instrumentalist who is known for hard bop and soul-jazz, saxman Ron Blake should not be confused with either the '60s drummer Ronnie Blake, or the late-'90s- early-2000s trumpeter Ron Blake (a session player who has appeared in rock and R&B settings). Saxophonist Blake (who is best known for his tenor and soprano playing, but can also handle the baritone and alto saxes) can be lyrical or romantic but always brings a lot of grit to his solos; he is obviously well aware of the funkier, bluesier side of jazz and usually doesn't go out of his way to be abstract. Blake brings a long list of influences to his work, and they range from Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, to Grover Washington, Jr., Gene Ammons, and Stanley Turrentine. Blake has been compared to all of those saxmen, and some more valid comparisons include Eddie Harris, Ron Holloway, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, David "Fathead" Newman, and Robert "Bootsie" Barnes (a superb tenor man who is famous in Philadelphia but little-known in other cities). Although Blake has lived in New York City since the early '90s, he isn't a native of the Big Apple; the improviser was born in the Virgin Islands. Blake was only eight when he began studying the guitar, and at the age of ten, he started learning the sax after being exposed to the record collection of his father (who was seriously into hard bop, soul-jazz and organ combos). Blake's first saxophone was an alto, but eventually, he learned the tenor, soprano, and baritone saxes as well; he also studied the flute. After leaving the Virgin Islands, Blake ended up in the Midwestern United States, where he graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan before moving to the Chicago area and attending Northwestern University in Evanston, IL in the 1980s. At Northwestern, Blake studied classical saxophone with Dr. Frederick Hemke, but jazz, not classical, won out -- and the late '80s found Blake playing a lot of bop gigs in Chi-Town (where he crossed paths with local icons like tenor man Von Freeman and pianist Jodie Christian). Although he found that Chicago had a rich jazz scene, Blake didn't stay; in 1990, he moved to Florida after being offered a teaching gig at the University of South Florida. But Blake didn't remain in Florida either; in 1992, he moved to New York City, where he spent five years in trumpeter Roy Hargrove's quintet ,and seven years in flugelhornist Art Farmer's group. By the early 2000s, Blake was leading his own quartet, which included pianist Shedrick Mitchell, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Greg Hutchinson. Blake's first album as a leader, Up Front & Personal, was released on the Tahmun label in 2000. That CD was followed by 2003's Christian McBride-produced Lest We Forget, a Mack Avenue release that found Blake paying tribute to three soul-jazz greats who had died: Grover Washington, Jr., Stanley Turrentine, and organist Charles Earland. ~ Alex Henderson