In 2002, the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition focused on saxophonists. There were 15 musicians, and the bar was set high enough that a player as polished and original as Marcus Strickland only placed third. The winner was 31-year-old Seamus Blake, a British-born, Vancouver-reared New Yorker who, at that point, was little known outside of a few select scenes. But as Ben Ratliff, writing for the New York Times, put it, Blake’s win was no contest. By the end, Ratliff wrote, “most at the competition, judges and spectators alike, agreed that he had more of everything: melody, harmony, time, coherence, originality.”
“I honestly didn’t think I would win,” Blake says now. “I entered because I wanted to meet Wayne (Shorter) and Herbie (Hancock), two of my biggest idols.” He not only got to meet them, but he played with them at the competition’s finale. Even so, Blake is modest about his achievement, shrugging it off as having been more about hard work and preparation than inborn ability. “I treated the competition like an important gig,” he recalls. “I like having gigs to practice for.”
That work ethic, combined with the solidity of his sound and the remarkable consistency of his performance across almost 90 albums as a sideman or leader, has made Blake, now 48, one of the most admired saxophonists of his generation.
Admiration and reputation goes only so far, though, and Blake is the first to admit that winning the Monk competition in 2002 wasn’t quite the golden ticket it had been a decade earlier. “I don’t think the experience changed my career in the way it did for Joshua (Redman),” he says. When Redman won, in 1991, he landed a major label record deal with Warner Bros., while second-place winner Eric Alexander was picked up by Delmark and Criss Cross and third-placer Chris Potter also signed with Criss Cross.
“When I won, the record labels were already dismantling,” says Blake. On the other hand, by the time he won the Monk competition, Blake already had three albums as a leader under his belt, including two for Criss Cross. The Call, his debut, found the 22-year-old fronting a band that included guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, pianist Kevin Hayes, and bassist Larry Grenadier; Four Track Mind, his second album, found him sparring confidently with tenor great Mark Turner.
Maybe, then, the reason the Monk prize didn’t have a huge impact on Blake’s career was that he’d hit his stride artistically well before he’d entered the contest. But it’s also worth wondering whether the marketing machinery of a major label would have been a good fit for Blake in the first place.
Record companies often see artists as product that can be boiled down to a simple idea and sold with a catchphrase. Jazz musicians in general aren’t easily pigeonholed, but Blake is a particularly challenging case because he seems almost constitutionally incapable of doing just one thing. At the same time that he was establishing his straight-ahead bona fides as a sideman working with the likes of Victor Lewis, Billy Drummond, and the Mingus Big Band, he was also a member of the Bloomdaddies, an electric quintet that found Blake feeding his horn through a wah-wah pedal.
To Blake, it’s all part of the same music—jazz—though a marketing executive might beg to differ.
“The electric guitar is not jazz, then? A synth? It’s a ridiculous notion,” he says. “There does seem to be a strange prejudice against electric music. I’ve noticed that critics seem to ignore Wayne Shorter’s amazing electric records. I think it will change. The new crop of musicians are embracing electricity more and more.”
Blake makes this point while touring behind what is perhaps the most un-amplified album of his career, the strictly acoustic Guardians of the Heart Machine (Whirlwind), featuring his relatively new quartet, the French Connection. The album is a stylistic departure from Blake’s previous record, Superconductor, on which Blake played an electronic wind instrument, or EWI, alongside guitarist John Scofield, bassist Matthew Garrison, and drummer Nate Smith. “Probably with the next (album) I will go back to electric,” Blake says casually. “I seem to enjoy going between the two worlds.”
It’s tempting to wonder if part of the ease with which Blake moves between worlds stems from his own transatlantic background. Born in London of Irish parentage, he grew up in Vancouver, B.C., and then moved to Boston to study at Berklee. “I feel Canadian from growing up there and American from living there so long,” he says. “I also feel a connection to Europe, being born in London and having an Irish father.”
Since February of last year, Blake has lived in Paris. “I finally got an Irish EU passport,” he explains. “An EU passport enables me to live and work in Europe indefinitely. I’ve always loved the diversity of culture in Europe—life is vibrant and refined. When the project with the French Connection began, I started to think it might be fun to live in Paris.”
The concept for that group, however, actually originated in London. “The idea was pitched to me by Olivier Saez, who saw me playing with Antonio Sánchez in Ronnie Scott’s,” says Blake. “He wanted to organize a tour with some French musicians.”
Saez, the director of French investment firm IÉNA Capital, is a former saxophonist himself, and an active and devoted jazz fan. “He is passionate about jazz and has donated his energy in helping me,” Blake says. “During the process of putting the new recording together, he formed a company with two other friends, Fred Crouzier and Glenn Francis, who also love jazz. They are known as FOG Music. Fred, Olivier, and Glenn have been helping a great deal with the organization and implementation of the record release tour.”
As for the musicians Saez was touting, Blake was already familiar with one of them, pianist Tony Tixier, having played with him in New York. Bassist Florent Nisse and drummer Gautier Garrigue were new to him. Blake had already been writing, so he got together with the Connection to work up the new material. “Some of the music had to be played a bit to find the right approach,” he says. “Sometimes I guided them, and sometimes they suggested things.”
Saez organized a tour of France and Spain for the quartet, and things worked out so well that Blake immediately took the band into the studio. Blake seems hesitant to describe their playing as particularly French, suggesting instead that “nowadays, more than ever, we have a global jazz community.” At most, he adds, “they are aware of European players that perhaps Americans are less aware of.”
Still, Blake saw the album as an opportunity “to bridge what I consider elements of European and American styles, writing music I like to play, but also with a European sensibility, including classical harmony and certain types of groove.”
Blake started out in classical music, having studied violin from ages seven to 14, and lists Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Bartók among his compositional inspirations. Although the classical influence on Guardians of the Heart Machine isn’t as immediately obvious as on Superconductor, which boasted a string section arranged by Guillermo Klein, Blake makes consistent use of strategies derived from classical harmony.
Take, for example, the tune “Vaporbabe,” which plays off of the circle of fifths to create a tension that has Blake, in his solo, perpetually chasing harmonic resolution. “I wrote ‘Vaporbabe’ with a desire to have a bit of a classical sound,” he says. “It’s all about melody and bass twisting with each other.”
Then there’s “Lanota” (“atonal” spelled backwards). Blake’s melody seems to establish a central key for the piece, then sneaks in and out of it, as do his and Tixier’s solos. The playing is lively and engaging, thanks in large part to the way Garrigue’s supple polyrhythms work against the grounding pulse of Nisse’s bass. “Gautier plays great,” Blake says. “I hear some of the younger New York sound in his playing—some Bill Stewart, but also the tradition of Tony (Williams), Elvin (Jones), and Philly Joe (Jones), amongst others.”
“Lanota” also shows off the extent to which Blake has polished his use of the altissimo register; though the melody climbs into the stratosphere at points, his tenor tone remains clear and sweet.
“It’s part of the evolution of saxophone technique,” he says. “Eddie Harris was maybe the first example. Check out ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ (from Harris’ 1966 album The In Sound). He’s playing in the fourth octave in a sweet way, the way many of us do now.”
When I wonder why Harris doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves, Blake nods. “I have a lot of whys that I ask myself about the music business,” he says. “There are quite a few musicians that know and appreciate him. I used to play a song of John Scofield’s called ‘Do Like Eddie,’ so some folks know.”
“Betty in Rio,” from Guardians, is also a tribute to a sax great, being a contrafact to Benny Golson’s classic “Along Came Betty.”
“I love Benny Golson,” Blake says. “I had the pleasure of riding in a bus in Siberia with him once.”
A bus in Siberia?
“I was on a tour with the David Kikoski Quartet in Russia. There were several bands being bussed together. It was a long trip. I loved talking with him. He is a beautiful guy. So kind. His music is a big part of the jazz repertoire, and I’ve played many of his tunes since I was a student. We all should talk about him more.”
As for the album’s title, a record company press release suggested that it’s derived from Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis. But Blake explains that the story goes deeper than that.
“For me, the title symbolizes the importance of creating music with feeling,” he says. “The title track also took on added meaning a few months ago, when my father underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery. The song became an anthem to protect him and to keep him strong, and (on tour) I was sometimes dedicating the song to my father, in the hope that he would have a successful operation. And he did; he’s recovering well. So protecting the heart of music, playing with heart, playing with feeling—those are all interconnected for me.”