INTERVIEW: Seamus Blake (new album Guardians of the Heart Machine / launch Kings Place 8 March)

Seamus Blake, London2018
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska
Saxophonist SEAMUS BLAKE, a major force in contemporary jazz, has recorded a new album on the Whirlwind Recordings label with a new band, The French Connection. Guardians of the Heart Machine was recorded at the Studio de Meudon in Paris. The London launch is at Kings Place on 8 March. Saxophonist Alex Hitchcock interviewed Seamus Blake about the album, starting by asking him where he is based….

“I’m based sort of nowhere; I have some bags and some instruments in Latvia but at the moment I’m just sort of a vagabond.” Seamus Blake is speaking from Riga. The path leading to this point saw him win the 2002 saxophone edition of the legendary Thelonious Monk Competition and enjoying a celebrated career that has seen him feature in groups led by John Scofield, Antonio Sanchez, and Dave Douglas while releasing an eclectic range of recordings as leader, memorably with fellow tenor saxophone hero Chris Cheek on the 2014 Criss Cross release Reeds Ramble.

“My initial thing was just to come over to Europe: I can float between Europe, the US, and Canada because I have passports for those places. I enjoy Europe a lot, it’s a different view on life and the Europeans love jazz… it’s a refreshing change to hop across the pond.”

The wheels of the new album, Guardians of the Heart Machine, were set in motion when Paris-based jazz aficionado Olivier Saez approached Blake in Ronnie Scott’s and broached the idea of a tour with some younger French musicians: pianist Tony Tixier, bassist Florent Nisse, and drummer Gautier Garrigue. A subsequent recording in Paris was taken up by Whirlwind Recordings, the label founded by American bassist Michael Janisch. The label’s press release suggests that the title, derived from a character in the 1927 film Metropolis, “symbolizes and protects the importance of creating music with feeling”, which Blake places at the centre of his work. “Part of the meaning is certainly connecting emotions to music, and surprisingly some people don’t always do that! I remember as a child listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as a ten-year-old, closing my eyes and seeing this entire Disney animation. It was like what I imagine doing acid to be: very pictorial. Music has that power, through sculpting sound you can transmit emotions and take people on a journey.”

The title track, Blake says, also took on an added meaning three months ago, when his father underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery. The song “became an anthem to protect him and to keep him strong, and 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, and so protecting the heart of music, playing with heart, playing with feeling, those are all interconnected for me.”

It was his father, an English teacher “who is infinitely smarter than I am”, who pointed out the nod to Macbeth in The Blasted Heath, an initially accidental reference that Blake puts down to Shakespeare’s lurking presence in his subconscious. He describes it as “a kind of a despair song – there were a lot of forest fires going on [at the time of writing in 2017], and every summer seems to break a new record for fires and heatwaves. I remember seeing some images of some of these decimated forests after the fires and they looked apocalyptic to me.” The track is immediately notable for its haunting, understated vocals; Blake has sung on previous albums and feels that words offer “another dimension; for me it’s another colour and a way to tell a story with even more clarity. You can say a lot with a musical story but you don’t have that power of image that you have with words.”

Wandering Aengus, inspired by the poem by W.B. Yeats, also leans more towards the melancholic, dreamlike side of Blake’s writing. The fluttering odd meter groove is an apposite setting for the ethereal world of Yeats’ poem, and showcases the rhythm section’s deftness and restraint, with the lightness of touch in Tixier’s spiralling over-the-time solo particularly compelling. The atmosphere is supernatural; Blake began writing the piece on a guitar with appropriately “funny tuning” after being sent the poem by his mother, and thought about adding lyrics before deciding against it. The track is, Blake says, a candidate for a planned project – “sometimes the musical journey is longer than just one album” – that will revisit some of his small group instrumental songs, add lyrics and expand them to large ensemble or big band vocal arrangements.

He says of Tixier, Nisse, and Garrigue that “they are all open-minded musically, they’ve mastered their instruments, and they contributed in a lot of cool ways. A good supporting musician knows when to add something creative and to fine tune their intentions to the music.” Blake wrote the music for the album after having already played extensively with them, and tried to combine his own style with “a European classical feel that would offer a little bit of a challenge but would feel like a bridge between the European and American worlds”. Blake cites the “classical voice-leading and bass movement” in Vaporbabe as an example of his attempt to integrate the two styles; an as yet unrealised vision for a video for that track imagined the quartet “wearing powdered wigs and dressed like Mozart”.

One of the most compelling aspects of Blake’s playing – and one that has inevitably given rise to a small army of slack-jawed imitators – is his dexterity and expressiveness at the extreme ranges of the instrument. Rather than being an exclamation point or a climactic device used for its own sake, Blake’s lucid, direct altissimo functions as a true extension of the saxophone’s range, allowing ideas to find their natural resolution. He sounds free to stretch out and to follow lines and motifs to their conclusion here, particularly over Tixier’s responsive comping on Sneaky D and on a harder-edged, chordless section of Lanota”. This freedom is reflected both in the compositions and in the way this and his last album, Superconductor, are presented; the artwork and titles on both albums seem to be moving closer to the ‘concept album’ than anything before in Blake’s discography. “I’ve been freer to do more creative things,” he says. “Previously, I was a little bit more limited in terms of what I could do. With Superconductor, I was quite free to do anything I wanted. Maybe through having a bit more freedom I’m able to unify the vision a little bit more.”

Tellingly, Blake identifies his own ‘postmodern’ inclinations in the scope and ambition of these last two albums. “Sometimes I get a little bit scattered: jazz musicians now are into everything, they can play R&B, hip hop, drum and bass, classical music. There are elements of all of these, so some albums mix a lot of different things, and for the listener it’s quite a journey. It’s a common thing, especially in our super-connected world.” He reflects: “perhaps it was too much freedom all of a sudden and I was trying everything I had never been able to do. I’m hoping to make albums that have more of a continuitt.” The sheer breadth of Blake’s work as a side musician certainly testifies to that ability to shift between idioms, or rather to blend them convincingly. He places improvisation at “the core of jazz and the core of my personality; that’s always been something I loved. Even if it’s in the context of another genre or style, I’m still a jazz musician in what I do, even if there are these other elements going on.”

Album Cover of Guardians of the Heart Machine
Looking ahead to the London launch of the new album, Blake feels “a special connection from being born in London. I always feel a little bit British when I’m back there; my very first words as a three-year-old were with a British accent. I’m a fan of tons of British music – they’ve always been the masters of popular music. It’s a coming home kind of feeling.” (pp)

LINKS: Seamus Blake at Whirlwind Recordings
The London launch of Guardians of the Heart Machine will be at Kings Place on 8 March (BOOKINGS)

Categories: Features/Interviews

1 reply »

  1. We used to have an audio cassette with Seamus singing “ The Grand Old Duke of York” in an impeccable London accent, but unfortunately we seemed to have mislaid it. Wonderful interview, Alex. Dan Blake

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