Seamus Blake: Bellwether (2009)
This is a great period for tenor players, with some of the best in our midst: Chris Potter, Jimmy Greene, Donny McCaslin, Marcus Strickland, and Seamus Blake, among others. Surfacing in the Mingus Big Band during the nineties, Blake's aggressive edginess was impressive in a group which took no prisoners. The tenor saxophonist more than held his own. Recently, he seems to be refining and elaborating his improvisational style while further developing his compositional skills.
With Bellwether, Blake brings a number of shrewd twists and extensions to the contemporary, post-hard bop genre. This is much the same band as on Blake's highly-regarded outing Way Out Willy (Criss Cross, 2007). Only the Australian bassist Matt Clohesy is new.
Claiming he was attracted to John Scofield's "Dance Me Home" for its "fun to play on" modulations, Blake transforms this opening tune's original funk into straight-out, up-tempo blowing. It may be the most predictable piece on the album. On Blake's original, "A Beleza Que Vem," a relaxed homage to Brazilian music, pianist David Kikoski sets up a lovely lilt using an almost formal triple-metered, dance-hall rhythm. Blake's ballad "The Song That Lives Inside," reveals echoes of Thelonious Monk's classic, "'Round Midnight," and includes a fine acoustic guitar solo from guitarist Lage Lund. The title tune rides an easy, swaying 5/4, while on the up-tempo cooker, "Minor Celebrity," drummer Bill Stewart conjures a constantly-simmering, complex rumble in seven.
The real surprise comes at the end of this release: Debussy's "String Quartet in G." It's a wonder improvising musicians haven't mined the string quartet repertoire before, with its scads of melodies and harmonies which seem tailor-made for the developmental instincts and intricacies of a jazz group. Here Blake tackles the third movement and works some of its chords into a mid-section recurring pattern for solos. With soprano and piano dominating, the piece features Kikoski, who knows this territory well and incorporates those distinctive and irresistible impressionist harmonies.
For some, possibly, the front line unison of tenor and guitar head statements may seem a bit familiar. It is a popular style now, with many groups like those of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Adam Rogers and Chris Potter, and Joshua Redman and Ben Monder having taken the same approach.
But there are enough subtle differences within these performances and compositions to distinguish this from what at first might appear as another variation on the usual Criss Cross date. The Brazilian piece avoids the typical bossa treatment; the varied time signatures are intriguing and fresh; and the Debussy closer is a gem. While there may be nothing uncharted here, except perhaps for the Debussy, Bellwether becomes more enticing and satisfying with each listen.
Track Listing: Dance Me Home; A Beleza Que Vem; Subterfuge; The Song That Lives Inside; Bellwether; Minor Celebrity; String Quartet in G Minor,Opus 10.
Personnel: Seamus Blake: tenor and soprano saxaphones; Lage Lund: guitar; David Kikoski: piano; Matt Clohesy: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.