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"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."
June 29, 2010 | Meet Blake Van Treese, jazz mandolinist
Blake Van Treese recently graduated from the University of California, San Diego, and early in his career has taken on the daunting challenge of blazing traditional jazz trails with our beloved mandolin. He started playing harmonica when he was 19, went to guitar, and on to mandolin which he credits the attraction to years of listening to David Grisman and Jerry Garcia.
After moving to to Santa Cruz in 2003 he hooked up with some talented songwriters and musicians, one of them shared his passion for mandolin. He recalls, "I started picking mandolin when I moved. We pushed each other very hard and were in constant competition. I started with folksy stuff and then got interested in bluegrass music. In 2004 I started getting into jazz and studying music seriously. At Cabrillo Junior College I began studying music theory and jazz theory and met jazz educator, Ray Brown (trumpeter not bassist) who took me under his wing despite his reservations about letting mandolin into his classes. One thing he always said to me every time I played a passage with tremolo is, 'this isn't a greek wedding.'"
We asked about personal challenges faced including mandolin in a college big band setting or mainstream jazz environment; he confesses, they "have been numerous. At the same time being a mandolinist has allowed me to gain a great deal of attention because of the fact that I am playing an unorthodox jazz instrument. I think that the main issues I have come across have been problems with amplification and tone. In the jazz ensemble I played a Stonebridge MA-23 SF with a shadow pickup, the tone is pretty bad and seriously lacks sustain, these are the main problems that I have faced integrating into the jazz ensemble. Most of the time comping sounds too percussive and besides that fact, I am usually playing with two or three other chordal instruments. In these cases, I found myself mostly not comping and adding the occasional tremolo for texture."
He continues, "the entire first year I spent at UC San Diego, people really struggled to accept me into the jazz community, but after several gigs and jam sessions (after I proved that I had chops) I began to be accepted. By my second year I had gained the respect of everyone as a player and it was at this point that I started to compose for the jazz ensemble (20 to 30 instruments). After that first piece was performed, the audiences as well as members of the ensemble began to accept me as a legitimate composer and jazz musician."
We enjoy hearing of mandolinists unafraid of breaking down barriers to the traditional boundaries of the instrument. Check out Blake's website for some videos of his experiences at college and some of his compositions on his website.