INTERVIEW: Seamus Blake

Seamus Blake
New York based tenor saxophonist/composer Seamus Blake is at the forefront of contemporary jazz. His music is known for its sophistication, bold improvisation and sheer swagger.  John Scofield, who hired Seamus for his “Quiet Band,” called him “extraordinary, a total saxophonist.”

Seamus Blake was born December 1970 in England and raised in Vancouver, Canada. After graduation from Berklee, he moved to New York, where he rapidly established himself on the scene. He has released six albums as leader on Criss Cross Records,  including his 1993 debut The Call. 

He continues to work with his fine quintet (David Kikoski, Lage Lund, Bill Stewart, Matt Clohesey) and on his ongoing explorations of electronic applications in jazz, especially with the EWI (electronic wind instrument).

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Michael Underwood interviewed Seamus Blake about his new album, memories of Berklee and his inspirations:

Michael Underwood: When did music first feature in your life? Are you from a musical family? What were your early influences?

Seamus Blake: I began playing music on the violin. I played classical violin until I was about 15 years old. Some of the first music I heard that I wanted to play was Bach solo violin. My parents are not musicians but always had a deep appreciation for the arts in general. They love cinema, art, plays, books etc. and have always been very encouraging and very supportive.
MU: At what stage did you choose the saxophone?

SB: I began playing the saxophone around the age of 15

MU: Did any other career paths interest you - in reality or just as dreams?

SB: For a couple of years I was very interested in Theatre improv comedy. I was a member of an acting troop in Vancouver called Theater Sports.  Improvising in theatre is similar to improvising in jazz such as openness and thinking on your feet, devoting a narrative not blocking a teammates ideas. These were important skills that I learned from improv comedy.

MU: What effect did doing a jazz degree at Berklee have on your playing and your musical perceptions?

SB: I feel that I basically taught myself how to play although whilst at Berklee I was exposed to many great young student musicians as well as some good teachers and I got a lot of playing opportunities. 

MU: Are there friendships/musical relationships from that time which have lasted?

SB: Yes quite a few. I am still in touch with several friends from that time. Recently I was collaborating with Guillermo Klein for my newest cd. Scott Kinsey also played keyboards on my latest CD. Scott was at Berkeley at the same time as me along with Chris Cheek, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner and Jordi Rossy whom I have played with over the years. I think I was very lucky to be at Berklee during a very fertile period for the school. There were many great young players in my generation and I still play with many of them.

MU: After studying, was there a single moment which got your career going, or a person, or was it gradual?

SB: It was gradual although drummer Victor Lewis gave me my first recording session with his band in New York while I was still in college. It was a beginning of sorts. A lot of my early gigs can be traced back to Victor and his group.

MU: Was the Mingus Big Band important for you?

SB: I played with the Mingus band for several years from about 1995 to 2004. I like Mingus’s music a lot and I made many great friends in the band such as David Kikoski, Alex Sipiagin, Boris Kozlov and Donald Edwards.

MU: You recently released Reeds Ramble with Chris Cheek, what was the inspiration behind this album and why did you pick these musicians?

SB: Chris and I go back to college days. Chris is a great friend and we had a band together for many years called The Bloomdaddies. I always enjoy playing with him and we have a good rapport. We picked the members of the band together. They are all friends that we have both played with over the years.

MU: You have made a great contribution to Helen Sung’s new album on Concord. Was that an enjoyable album to make? Are there other recent albums where you are a sideman which stand out for you?

SB: Yes it was enjoyable. Helen writes interesting challenging music that is rewarding to play. I also played on Alex Sipiagin's CD for the 5Passion's label as well as Gonzalo Rubalcaba's CD. I am looking forward to recording with Bill Stewart and Antonio Sanchez in the fall.

MU: You were in the studio at the beginning of June recording a new album on the 5Passion label, could you tell us more about this album?

SB: Yes, this new album should be available sometime this fall, I hope. It is a combination of some electric quartet songs with Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison and Nate Smith, and some tunes with a large ensemble (woodwinds and strings) on some songs. John Scofield and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are both special guests.

MU: The instrumentation for this album looks very exciting. What inspired you to bring these musicians together and what writing have you been doing for this ensemble?

SB: It was the first recording for a label where there was a budget that allowed me to do some more daring and interesting things. I wanted to feature some orchestral songs to contrast with some more electric songs. My wife is a great arranger and partly her influence has inspired me to push for a larger ensemble sound.

MU: Are there any more projects in the pipeline? 

SB: I am recording another Opus 5 CD next week. I will also continue to record more CDs for the 5Passion Label.  

MU: Tell us about your singer/songwriting? Is that something you want to develop?

SB: I worked at songwriting and playing the guitar for many years although recently it is taken a bit of a back seat due to my interest in electronic music. I hope to find some more time soon to rekindle that passion

MU:  Do you have any advice for up-and-coming jazz musicians?

SB: Play and practice as much as you can learn the tradition develop your rhythm and strive for a beautiful sound. Discover your likes outside of jazz try to bring them together in a total, complete, unified way. Develop your ears try to play what you hear.

MU: If you could only listen to 5 albums for the rest of your life what would they be?

SB: Led Zeppelin III - Led Zeppelin
       Revolver - Beatles
       8:30 - Weather Report
       Speak No Evil - Wayne Shorter
       Coltrane's Sound - John Coltrane

MU: What inspires you outside of music?

SB: Lately science and space. Shows like Cosmos and the movie Particle Fever. Emotions and experiences. Traveling and living life.

MU: Do you have projects in their early stages or things that you'd like to do but haven’t started yet?

SB: I am finishing my CD and then will be working on the next one. I will be touring with Antonio Sanchez next year and doing a record with him as well as Bill Stewart.

Michael Underwood: When will you next be in the UK? What musicians over here do you know/ like to work with? 

Seamus Blake: No UK plans. Ross Stanley, Chris Higginbottom, Mark McKnight and James Maddren. 

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