Seamus Blake Quartet at Smalls 1/24/18 (by Jeff McGregor)

Seamus Blake

PERSONNEL: Seamus Blake (tenor saxophone), Tony Tixier (piano), Matt Clohesy (bass), Kush Abadey (drums)

SET 1:  Untitled (Blake), Wandering Angus (Blake), Betty In Rio (Blake), I’m Okay (Del Barrio), Guardians of the Heart Machine (Blake)

SET 2:  Sneaky D (Blake), Willow Weep For Me (Ronell), Vaporbabe (Blake), Blues for the Real Human Beings (Tixier), In Bloom (Nirvana)

HIGHLIGHTS:  Blake’s solo on the ballad “I’m Okay” sang with a piercing beauty.

Last November, Seamus Blake recorded with a French rhythm section that included pianist Tony Tixier. The album features new compositions from Blake and will be released later this year. Playing mostly music from the new record, Blake and Tixier were joined by bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Kush Abadey for this performance at Smalls.

Blake’s only agenda with these new compositions was to be concise and “to the point.” While he feels that some of the music has a more European feel, much of it is still grounded in his North American roots. As he explained, “I am who I am.”

The melody of the untitled opener put an angular and atonal line against different bass pedals. Tixier navigated this harmonically open space with a dense, searching solo that reminded me of early Keith Jarrett. The samba “Betty In Rio” was a contrafact on “Along Came Betty.” In the Tristano style, Blake’s new line beautifully blurred the symmetry of the tune’s phrase structure. Making it a samba instead of the typical medium swing opened up a new side to these well-worn changes. In a similar way, Blake created a fresh space in “Willow Weep For Me” by placing the melody against a 7/4 second-line groove. In both tunes, Blake stretched out with awe-inspiring solos that were relentlessly melodic and inventive.

“Guardians of the Heart Machine” closed the first set. The dramatic lyricism of the melody felt at times like a grunge anthem, which Blake’s sang out with his buoyant, Breckeresque tone. Through Blake’s solo, Abadey sensitively propelled the music forward while coloring everything with a Tain-like swirl of rhythm and texture. In a more direct tribute to the grunge era, the night closed with a hard-hitting reading of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” It captured one of Blake’s greatest strengths: the ability to convincingly pair harmonic complexity with raw, unaffected lyricism.

by Jeff McGregor