Seamus Blake: Fearless improvisation meets lyrical beauty

by Scot Casey

On Wednesday, Feb. 4 the Whatcom Jazz Music Arts Center is presenting the brilliant New York saxophonist Seamus Blake, along with pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Michael Glynn and Julian MacDonough on drums. They will be performing a tribute to the music of Eddie Harris. It promises to be an absolutely stellar evening for jazz in Bellingham.

Seamus Blake is well known and respected in contemporary jazz circles as a dynamic tenor saxophonist and talented composer. In 2002, he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, subsequently performing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. He is known for his bold sophisticated style and fearless improvisation. His various projects include John Scofield’s Quiet Band, The Seamus Blake Quartet and the grunge jazz band The Bloomdaddies. He also is a member of the Grammy nominated Mingus bands, the Victor Lewis Quintet and BANN, amongst others.

When I asked him about his wide variety of styles and modes of playing, he said, “I think I embrace many different styles under one umbrella. From jazz to funk to ballads to high energy modal. I attempt to maintain a lyricism throughout all my music no matter what genre I may be playing.”

Blake also plays guitar and sings in the experimental rock band Moosejaw. Vocal comparisons range from Thom Yorke to Chet Baker. “It is inevitable that people need to categorize. It is how we are wired,” he said about being compared to other artists. “We compare everything to everything. Sometimes there is some truth to comparisons and sometimes not at all.”

What is fascinating about his non-jazz projects is how much they are still informed with a jazz sensibility and aesthetic. “It is a good foundation for all other styles. If you can play good jazz chances are you can play any other kind of music with a little practice,” Blake explained.

There is a Youtube video of Seamus performing “Body and Soul” at the 33rd Annual International Saxophone Symposium. He is alone on the stage: a man with a saxophone. His interpretation of the standard is like an elegant fractal, outer edges of melody unfolding into new sonic worlds.

With all of his various projects and wide ranging musical enthusiasms, I asked about the evolution of his music. “My music has always been evolving and will continue to. It is necessary for an artist to continually seek new things in order to stay vibrant and creative,” he said.

The Tribute to Eddie Harris was suggested to Blake by the owner of Smoke Jazz in New York several years ago and has since become an annual event.

“I am influenced by Eddie’s adventurous spirit. He has such far reaching elements in his music from bebop to funk to bossa nova to avant garde that it almost makes your head spin,” he said. “Very few people covered such diverse ground. It is precisely this attitude of no fear and of trying the unusual and impossible that attracts me to his music.”

Harris was always experimenting with the limits of music, working on ways to warp the sound of various instruments to his own purposes. This same restlessness, this striving for “new” sounds within the context of beautiful lyricism is present in Blake’s playing. “Like Eddie, I have also been keen on exploring different sounds through electronic processing. Eddie was a pioneer in this regard. He is the father of the electronic saxophone!”

On this tour Blake wants to emphasize the full range of Eddie Harris’ music. He would like the audience to “become excited and moved by the music. I want them to enjoy the music as much as me.” Adding, “hopefully they take away a feeling. Perhaps they feel cleansed by a blues or empowered by a spirited song. Maybe they walk away humming a melody.”

For the Bellingham show, Blake will be joined by his longtime friend and musical collaborator Geoffrey Keezer. With the addition of the stellar WJMAC rhythm section of Michael Glynn and Julian MacDonough, it will be an event not to be missed.

LIVE SHOW: WJMAC presents jazz stars Seamus Blake and Geoffrey Keezer playing the Music of Eddie Harris on Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Majestic, 1027 N Forest St. Tickets are on sale at Village Books. See http://www.wjmac.org/calendar.html. 

Published in the February 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine