Live review

REVIEW: Seamus Blake and The French Connection at Kings Place

Seamus Blake at Kings Place
Photo credit: Monika S Jakubowska

Seamus Blake + The French Connection
(Kings Place Hall Two. 8 March 2019. Review by Dominic Williams)

Seamus Blake, tenor saxophonist – born in London, raised in Canada, with a stellar reputation in the USA but for the past two years based in Europe – was in London to launch his new album Guardians of the Heart Machine, made with a trio of younger musicians – pianist Tony Tixier (originally from Martinique rather than Metropolitan France, and now based in California), bassist Florent Nisse from Eastern France, and drummer Gautier Garrigue from Perpignan – who are called The French Connection, logically enough.

Asked in 2000 why Seamus Blake’s music was not better known, Pat Metheny wrote: “It goes right over the heads of most critics who just are unable to know what is good until enough of their musician friends and other fans hip them to it and shame them into the dap zone… and then if the guy or band finally does get some degree of success, they pretend that they heard it all along.” Not having come across Seamus Blake before, I went to listen suitably chastened.

If the sax player is the headline name on the bill, it takes some confidence to start the gig with a solo piano improvisation and then give the drummer a solo on the first track (the title track from the album). It set the tone for the evening, with each musician being given the confidence and space to experiment and take risks while still holding the band together.

The first set was mainly upbeat, with Sneaky D, Betty in Rio (Latin-tinged) and Wandering Aengus (a slower piece inspired by WB Yeats) all from the new album. The second set opened with the standard Willow Weep for Me, then four albums tracks – Vaporbabe (a slower and structured piece), I’m OK (a ravishing ballad) and a joyful unnamed final tune that took everyone close to the edge without falling over it. Hall Two at Kings Place can be short on atmosphere and album launches are sometimes overpolite affairs, but a sell-out crowd who were enthusiastic and knowledgeable helped the occasion along (and joined the band at the bar during the interval).

Seamus Blake and the French Connection
Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska

Tony Tixier the pianist, is classically trained, an accomplished composer and has, as Blake says, a European (and post-Bill Evans) sensibility but he is also happy with a more percussive rhythmic approach, so he has an all-round virtuoso style and acted as the anchor for the band on the night. Florent Nisse took three solos on bass, including my favourite, a melodic exploration on I’m OK, and he was inventive all evening. Gautier Garrigue also took three solos and established himself as a favourite with the audience – and you couldn’t say that about most drummers after three solos. Collectively they have all absorbed French sensibilities, and they come from a slightly different musical tradition than Blake, plus they are about 15 years younger than him so, in time they will probably go their separate ways, but enjoy it while it lasts. Every diamond needs a good setting and they are very good.

Blake himself is undoubtedly the real deal. His style is his own but it is deeply rooted in history. From one of his solos, you could probably decode the entire genome of the jazz saxophone. What also struck me at first is the remarkable accuracy of his articulation. Every note started and finished crisply and even on the faster runs there was little slurring or elision. That can create an austere cerebral sound, partly offset here by the trio, which provided a lot of colour. Then, the more the evening wore on, the more the sound loosened up and the more warmth came into his playing so that I’m OK for instance, was full of human emotion as well as musical expression. Great playing.

There are some gigs with this kind of line-up that feel like you are watching an historical re-enactment or a lament for how jazz was 60 years ago, when saxophone heroes walked the earth in their prime. But this was a band of musicians in the here-and-now, making great new music with a sense of freshness but also a sense of history. It was a thoroughly uplifting occasion and should open the way for Blake to get the wider reputation he deserves.

LINK: Interview with Seamus Blake by Alex Hitchcock

Categories: Live review

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