Places like Austin, TX (where Blum currently resides), New York City (where he also lives and works), Santa Fe, West Texas and New Orleans echo throughout Radio Dial, which is also informed by everything from coming of age into the renowned Washington, DC area
Photo by Andy Hess
blues, roots, and jazz scenes to even a brief stint in Beirut, Lebanon. As a result, one hears an alluring virtual world of musical styles and sounds throughout the album.
Blum opens the album with “Josephine,” which reaches back to his early folk roots that he enhances with modernist touches, and wraps up with the jazzy romanticism of “Blooming in the Sun,” a duet with his friend, rising jazz singing and songwriting star Kat Edmonson. In between he touches on a stunning breadth of moods and modes. His time in Texas near the borderlands brings a Tex-Mex flavor to the slow devotional dance of “Las Estrellas” and rollicking fiesta of “Barcelona,” while the heat of the desert wafts through “New Mexico Sunset” (which features New York singer Betty Black on harmonies) and the haunting tale of “Dude Barrachon.”
His youthful punk/new wave influences bring a kick to “I Know Evil,” he strikes a potent balance between classic and contemporary rock on “Love is a Blind Thing,” and summons up a hooky jazz/pop sway on “Thinkin’ About You.” As Blum sings on the seductively swaying title track, “There’s a song that will carry you across the ocean tuning in on your radio dial.” And all 10 tracks on the album share that rare quality of transporting listeners to vivid musical and lyrical locales.
Radio Dial blends together Blum’s recording journey through studios and scenes in Austin, New York and Maryland as well as his years perfecting his vision in his home studio, and features a wealth of notable players: Lee Alexander, Andrew Borger and Greg "Wiz" Weickzorek from Norah Jones’s band, Rufus Wainwright bassist Jeff Hill, and such world class drummers as Shawn Pelton of the “Saturday Night Live” band and J.J. Johnson (formerly with John Mayer and now with Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi).
Blum was all but born into music and writing. “Dad played folk guitar and toured college campuses as one of the Ballantine Ale Boys. Before college he was a songwriter,” he explains. And was also a television writer for such classic shows as “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched,” worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a college professor among other pursuits.
Hence he came into the world in Los Angeles immersed within musicality and creativity. “Everything about it fascinated from an early age,” he explains. “My father made a game we would play where we would sit around with the guitar and make up words. ‘Let’s make up our own song. See what you want to do with it.’ People would come to the house and he’d say let’s play them our new song,” he recalls.
Naturally, “As soon as I could get my hands around the neck of his guitar I was playing it,” says Blum. And he was introduced from an early age to such artists as Pete Seeger, Mississippi John Hurt, Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
When Jason was four years old his family relocated to Austin, TX, a city that left an indelible imprint on him before they moved on to the Washington, DC area when he was in his early teens. In high school his interests were diverted by football – “It was the only way to get girls,” he confesses – and he ended up the captain of his state championship team.
In college at the University of Maryland, music reasserted its pull on Blum and he began to play guitar with a renewed devotion and hone his musical skills to meet his aim of a professional career. As well, “I got a job at [famed DC jazz venue] Blues Alley and saw Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Mose Allison, Elvin Jones, all these jazz greats, then I’d scoot on down the 9:30 Club and the Bad Brains would be playing and all these other great punk and rock bands.” He also got a chance to play with legendary guitarist Danny Gatton and do his first recordings with such Gatton associates as bassist John Previti, drummer Brooks Tegler and guitarist Jim Stephanson (who play on “Blooming in the Sun”).
After graduation he explored an opportunity to work as his father did in TV in Los Angeles, but playing music and writing songs was what captivated his interests. So Blum moved to New Orleans where his cousin owned a guitar shop. And learned how his grandfather “was also a musician played banjo, guitar and mandolin and had recording equipment in his home.” In the Crescent City he worked with a number of the city’s veteran players and gained further roots music depth and knowledge. All the while he was writing songs and recording them, honing his craft.
Then a friend asked Blum to come along with him to the South by Southwest music fest in Austin. After playing with other musicians at an all night party he lucked into doing a showcase as a last minute replacement for an act that canceled. “I went back to New Orleans, packed up my car, and moved here,” he says.
He started playing such clubs as the Hole in the Wall and, like his grandfather, put together a home recording set up and completed his self-titled first album, which Blum released in 2000. It landed on the desks of the folks at Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records and won him an opening spot on some East Coast DiFranco tour dates. He also befriended Edmonson, who had just arrived in Austin, and the two embarked on a musical friendship that has found them writing and singing together in the years since.
An Austin friend who had moved to New York City suggested that Blum also relocate to the city, and he lucked into an apartment with miraculously low rent on Ludlow Street. Just across the way was The Living Room, Manhattan’s premiere singer-songwriter club, which became his regular haunt. Blum met and befriended Alexander and gave him some of the recordings that at the time Blum intended to be his second album.
“I got a call from him saying: ‘Man, Norah and I can’t stop listening to your record, we love it. I’d love to play with you sometime,’” Blum recalls. And so he soon did, mixing it up onstage with members of Jones’ band and later with players from David Byrne’s backing group. He also found a warm welcome with New York audiences performing at clubs like The Living Room, Hill Country Barbecue, NUBLU and the legendary Blue Note and opening shows at such noted venues as Bowery Ballroom, Williamsburg Music Hall and Rockwood Music Hall.
As well, he gathered together a collective of fellow players and songwriters for a set of shows that included Jesse Murphy (of The Brazilian Girls and bassist for Regina Carter), Gabriel Gordon (known for his guitar work with Natalie Merchant, The Soup Dragons and Meshell N’degeocello) and Jason Darling (who plays and writes with Leona Naess) with Pelton (whose credits include work with Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Celine Dion and Billy Joel, among others) holding down the backbeat.
All the while Blum continued writing and recording at home plus laying down tracks with Alexander and top producer/engineer Tom Schick (know for his work with Paul McCartney, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Sean Lennon and a host of others). Each new wrinkle in his career and associations would open further creative dimensions to explore. He also returned to Austin on a regular basis, while his talents as a professional chef led him to West Texas, Santa Fe and Beirut (where he was asked to make an album with Lebanese musicians that, interesting as the notion was, didn’t gel with his own musical directions). As Blum observes, “I’d cook a meal for people and then get out my guitar and play them some songs.” And kept winning new friends and supporters.
The catalyst that led to the completion of Radio Dial was a snowbound stretch in his New York apartment one winter during which he wrote and recorded yet another crop of songs.” It started sounding cool, and I heard new sounds I hadn’t heard before plus a depth that wasn’t previously there,” Blum recalls. “I found something super unique that turned me on as well as the people I was playing the stuff for.” Sessions at EAR Studio back in Austin completed the vision he had to finalize the album.
The sum of his experiences invests Radio Dial with an invitation to “take a little journey with me and follow the route I’ve been on,” he concludes. “Hopefully someone who listens to it will be taken somewhere and do some traveling just as I have.”