Back in 2002, Seamus Blake established himself firmly as tenor player of interest with a first place finish in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Since then, his rapidly growing discography, as well as collaborations with artists like John Scofield, suggests that the attention is well-deserved.
Even still, Blake's first live release represents a major step forward for the saxophonist. This two-disc set, culled from several shows in Italy, finds him cutting loose with a quartet that sounds as good as any working the music today. Featuring the superb rhythm section of pianist David Kikoski, bassist Danton Boller and drummer Rodney Green, Blake's tenor clicks like a lock into multiple sets of diverse and exciting tunes.
The four originals, including Blake's "The Jupiter Line" and "Fear of Roaming," offer great melodies and solo work, while the standards offer opportunities for sensitive reinvention. "Darn That Dream" opens with a lush, unaccompanied tenor statement that suggests the influence of Sonny Rollins and Michael Brecker. The group then launches into a rendition filled with romance and originality, and doesn't have to overreach for either.
The same sensitivity can be found in an arrangement of Debussy's "String Quartet in G Minor." This redesigned piece features light, dynamic playing from the rhythm section, while Blake reaches his altissimo with a sweetly classical intonation. Another virtuoso display of explosive melody from the piano crescendos into sax work that's all fire, before giving way to a gorgeous, minimalist bass solo.
Blake demonstrates a wonderful ear for melody throughout. His solos are always developing, and the results are frequently as fun and catchy as any head. And while his agility and command will certainly inspire some awe, he plays with soulnever losing sight of the larger musical picture in a flurry of technical push-ups.
His upbeat "Way Out of Willy" grooves along on a tight funk groove from the drums and piano. For his solo, Blake uses wah-wah and other effects to turn himself into a horn-guitar hybrid. Few musicians can pull this kind of thing off without descending into gimmickry, but Blake's raw virtuosity and artful sense of tone-play keep things cooking. Kikoski, who consistently matches the leader with ecstatic keyboard work and an incredible rhythmic vocabulary, rises to the challenge of the electric sax with a statement full of acoustic funk. Starting out simply, he alternates dizzying runs with intricate, foot-stamping beats that build to a fevered intensity, before Blake returns to cool things down.
This is a quartet that makes every tune sound easy, and it sounds even better thanks to a superb recording job. As exhilarating as a shot of espresso, this album should rank among the best of 2009. Even more exciting will be seeing what comes next for Blake and his quartet, wherever they play.
Personnel: Seamus Blake: tenor saxophone; David Kikoski: piano; Rodney Green: drums; Danton Boller: double-bass.