by Ian Mann
December 30, 2011
There's a palpable energy about these sparkling performances that could only come from a group in which the musicians know each other's playing intimately.
“Live At Smalls”
(Smalls Live SL-008)
Saxophonist Seamus Blake was born in the UK in 1970, raised in Vancouver and is now based in New York after graduating from the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading contemporary saxophonists Blake has worked with guitarist John Scofield, drummer Victor Lewis, trumpeter Dave Douglas and many other leading jazz figures.
Although I’d been aware of Blake’s presence and stature on the jazz scene for some time my “real” discovery of his playing came earlier in 2011 when Blake visited the UK to guest with a quartet led by Belfast based guitarist Mark McKnight and also featuring organist Ross Stanley and drummer James Maddren. Although Blake had appeared with the same personnel on McKnight’s album “Do Or Die” it was in live performance that the group really took off with their appearance at Dempsey’s in Cardiff rating as one of my gigs of the year as the group expanded on and breathed fresh life into the album material. All were outstanding but it was inevitably the Transatlantic visitor who garnered much of the attention.
My review of the Cardiff show attracted the attention of Seamus’ father and manager Dan Blake, who still lives in Vancouver, and who kindly sent me a copy of Seamus’ latest album for review. Thanks Dan.
“Live At Smalls” features Seamus Blake in what I like to think of as his natural habitat- leading an all star band in an intimate jazz club setting. Recorded live at Smalls in New York City and released on the club’s own Smalls Live imprint the album features Blake’s regular quintet stretching out on four Blake originals plus the standard “Stranger In Paradise”. What sets the album apart from any old blowing session is the sheer vivacity and inventiveness of the playing- from the off it’s obvious that this is a group that is clearly on top of its game. There’s a palpable energy about these sparkling performances that could only come from a group in which the musicians know each other’s playing intimately. The album has some great individual moments but also hangs together very effectively as a whole. Those responsible for these audio delights are Blake, specialising on tenor (he sometimes doubles on soprano), guitarist Lage Lund, pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Bill Stewart. It’s a heavyweight aggregation and the performances are of the high quality that one would expect from such a stellar line up.
Blake and his colleagues specialise in a brand of muscular post bop with intricate but not “difficult” themes and with plenty of room for the soloists to express themselves. It’s rooted in bebop and hard bop but with a thorough absorption of more contemporary developments. The album begins in blistering fashion with “Subterfuge”, the knotty theme providing the jumping off point for lengthy solos from Blake and Lund . The leader goes first demonstrating an astonishing fluency on the tenor sax as he solos in bravura fashion above Kikoski’s choppy piano chording and Stewart’s busy drumming. Blake seems to have a particular affinity for working with guitarists and the elegant but fiery Lund is up there with the best of them. He favours a pure, clear tone and deploys his effects judiciously. His mercurial single note soloing doesn’t seem to borrow from anybody in particular and his sound is very much his own. The peerless Bill Stewart is John Scofield’s drummer of choice and he has appeared with dozens of other leading jazz musicians including Scofield’s fellow guitarist Pat Metheny. Stewart is an inherently tasteful and highly colourful player but at the same time is not exactly lacking in power and seems to be capable of handling anything that’s thrown at him. He excels throughout this album and features strongly in the closing stages of this opening tune.
“Amuse Bouche” explores broadly similar territory with another memorable theme and more buccaneering soloing from the fearless Blake and the lithe Lund. The pair also link up to trade ideas above a scalding rhythm section. The Smalls series of recordings keep audience sounds prominent in the mix and there’s no mistaking just how much the New York crowd enjoyed this.
Blake’s “Consequence” slows the pace a little and provides a welcome opportunity for us to hear Kikoski as a soloist. Hitherto a superb accompanist the first two numbers saw the pianist dealing with Blake’s tricky heads with ease and offering propulsive, intelligent support to the soloists. Significantly he never gets in Lund’s way but links up superbly with Clohesy and Stewart to form a highly effective rhythmic unit. This piece sees him stretching out in inventive but essentially lyrical fashion before effortlessly slipping into a more supportive role as Blake’s tenor once again takes flight. I first heard Kikoski more than a decade ago when I enjoyed a live performance by the late Bob Berg’s quartet at the old Ronnie Scott’s club in Birmingham. Kikoski is also a an interesting leader and his excellent album “The Maze” (Criss Cross,1998) features an early appearance from none other than a young Seamus Blake.
“Strangers In Paradise” serves as both the album’s sole standard and only ballad. It opens with a delightful duet between Blake and Kikoski before expanding into a lustrous group performance that once again features Kikoski’s swinging lyricism in an extended solo that clearly delights the audience. Clohesy improvises around the melody in a rare bass feature before Blake briefly takes flight prior to a more lyrical coda.
The album closes with the lengthy “Fear Of Rooming”, a tune that marks a return to the approach of the first two numbers. Something of a favourite in the Blake catalogue this is a piece that gradually gathers momentum by way of outstanding solos by Kikoski, Blake and Lund with Stewart also making an outstanding contribution behind the drums. Once again the Smalls crowd clearly loved it.
“Live At Smalls” represents an excellent live snapshot of Blake’s essentially acoustic regular quintet. However Blake is a versatile and inquisitive musician who is involved with a number of other projects across a variety of jazz styles, often involving the use of electronics. In addition to his saxophone skills he is also an accomplished guitarist and vocalist. More information on Blake’s other projects can be found at http://www.seamusblake.com
In the meantime this quintet returns to Smalls for two live shows on January 27th and 28th 2012.