Aspiring artists can take music lessons and they can learn from other musicians, but nothing can prepare them to be live performers, which is what makes saxophonist Seamus Blake special. Normally, musicians build their reputations based on their recorded works, but Blake’s reputation is solidly built on his live performances, which captured the attention of John Scofield early in Blake’s pursuit of becoming a professional saxophone player.
Blake recounts, "I met John Scofield when he was hired to produce a Blue Note recording I was playing on. It was Kevin Hays's session Seventh Sense. Somehow he had heard my CD first on [the] Criss Cross [label], The Call and asked me and Kevin to join his new band. It was in 96-97 and again in 2000-2001. It was one of the best bands I had ever been in. It was a huge thrill! Sco is an idol. One of my all time favorite experiences!"
The experience became a bridge for Blake, who would go onto performing with a number of notable jazz artists such as Billy Drummond and Kevin Hays, which inevitably led to making several recordings as a bandleader and saxophonist. The latest one being Live In Italy, which he recorded with his quartet while they were on tour through Italy in 2008. He describes the experience as having its share of challenges, "We were under rehearsed. Due to scheduling and other problems, we arrived at the first concert not quite prepared to play some of my original compositions. Originally the idea was to record just one gig. Unfortunately the gig chosen was too early in the tour so I begged and pleaded with the label chief, Paolo and asked if we could record a couple more nights further down the road of the tour. Some of the best playing was from the end of the tour when the music had time to settle and develop and we were all familiar and comfortable with the songs and each other."
The musicians who perform in Blake’s quartet, pianist David Kikoski, drummer Rodney Green and bassist Danton Boller, were buddies of his at a time when he was working his way to making a name for himself in the jazz circuit. "I met these guys in New York over the years playing in other bands. They are some of my favorite musicians and are also great friends."
Blake explains why he wanted to do a live recording as opposed to a studio album with his quartet. "They are different to me," he pronounces. "The studio is more of a laboratory where it is possible to experiment and try different things. Overdubbing and electronic effects that are not possible live can be tried. It is the search for the ultimate take and the ultimate sound quality. A kind of holy grail search, which with the right engineers and time, can be found. It's not easy however. Live playing however lets the music breath in a more natural way. All the glory of the moment, the mistakes, the energy of the performance and the audience are all there. For the listener it's like pulling up a chair and really feeling part of the concert."
He reveals, "Some of my favorite jazz albums are live records. I think jazz sounds best live and if more people heard it that way they would understand and appreciate the synergy and spontaneity of the music. There is no way to ‘fix’ any mistakes. It is a pure representation of how we sound. Italy was not chosen per say. The record label and the tour just happened to be based there."
The songs chosen for the recording are a mix of original tunes and covers, which are some of Blake’s favorites to perform. "The first half of the selections are tunes of mine. Things that have appeared on my studio recordings. I wanted to see how we could stretch and grow with these tunes from night to night. By the end of the tour, we were really getting into some new territory for the tunes. The other material are songs that inspire me as a composer and player by some of my favorite musicians: John Scofield, Claude Debussy, Djavan, etc."
Blake has a long list of musicians that he admires and would like to cover. He enthuses that there are "So many! Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Cannonball, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Page, Brian Wilson, Djavan, Milton, Jobim, Bjork, Radiohead, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Cheek, Dave Kikoski, Bill Stewart, Kevin Hays, Scofield, Mingus, Zawinul.... I could go on forever."
The song "The Feeling Of Jazz" from Live In Italy was one example of the group tackling a standard. Blake notes, "This is a song by Duke Ellington. We play it pretty straight and close to the original."
During the process of working out the arrangements, Blake cites that the decisions made were not solely his own or the band‘s, but rather "It is a combination. There are charts with melodies and chords and bass lines. We discuss tempos and grooves and then they are free to play within these structures."
Blake exposes, "I mostly write myself, but I have tried collaborating as well. Writing is the hardest, most intriguing and satisfying aspect of music for me. I spend alot of time just trying things and then every once in a while I get something I like."
He recalls, "I always wrote stuff. After a failed attempt at a violin concerto, I think my first jazz composition was at age 16."
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Blake recollects, "I started on violin. Bach was the first music I heard that I wanted to play. Playing in orchestras was a good experience and taught me how to play dynamics and ensemble playing."
Seamus Blake began playing the saxophone shortly before he began writing music. "i stated playing [saxophone] at age 15. I saw some guys playing in Vancouver namely Phil Dwyer. Seeing him play live I thought I just really wanna play the saxophone. I played in a swing dance band early on. We played ‘In The Mood’ and ‘String Of Pearls’ and that type of stuff."
He reminisces about growing up in Vancouver, "There were some places to jam and some good musicians there for sure. Lots of clean mountain air and friendly people help too."
After high school, he attended college in the United States where learning his craft consumed most of his attention. "I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was mostly filled with lots of practicing and jamming. I was lucky to go there at a time when many great up and coming musicians were there. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Roy Hargrove, Mark Turner, Geoff Keezer, Jordi Rossy, Chris Cheek etc."
After college he moved to New York City on the premise that "New York is the best city for jazz, in possibly the world. Moving there after college was a natural thing to do, plus all my friends from Berklee had moved there. I was lucky to record some good records early upon moving to New York."
He admits that when the opportunities for employment as a saxophone player were slim in New York City, he tried his hand at other crafts. He discerns, "Yeah, the music business is up and down. I have thought about doing something else at the low points. Thus far, I thought about being an actor, but I would be pegged as a JIm Carrey wannabe. I gave that up. Another career... I'm not really trained in much else. It's looking like music is it."
Perfectly happy with his station in life as a professional saxophonist, bandleader, composer and arranger, Seamus Blake credits his ability to adapt to new conditions as the source of his longevity. He observes, "I’m always changing. I think I’m learning to be more melodic and simple. To mix and match and find new ways to express myself. I like change. I don’t listen back to much of what I have done in the past. I try to like it at the moment, and then let it go and look for something else."
It is his ability to grow with his surroundings that has enabled him to grow as a musician and bandleader, but it is his organic playing when he performs live that draws people to him. Playing live presses all the right buttons in him, and gives his music a magnetic quality as the pieces radiate aurally. Live In Italy demonstrates this magnetism which the Seamus Blake Quartet are capable of creating live, and brings audiences right into the middle of it all.