Review: Seamus Blake Trio

At Southport's winter jazz weekend Alan Ainsworth enjoys a musician who produces long-lined explorations as well as bringing fresh ideas to standards and pop tunes

Southport’s long-standing Jazz On A Winter’s Weekend is now under the management of Manchester’s Cinnamon Club promoter Neil Hughes. But Geoff Matthews, whose energy and commitment were the foundation of this friendly, innovative (and always sold-out) festival is still very much in evidence – not least through his involvement with the Orpheus project. With successful tours by Ingrid Jensen and Ellery Eskelin already under their belts, Orpheus's latest venture is the Seamus Blake Trio (Seamus Blake pictured right).

Blake’s trio grabbed the attention of the audience at Southport right from the start. After an opening number which introduced the themes of the evening – long melodious sax lines followed by rapid fire improvisation, a variety of themes from Ross Stanley on Hammond (more of that later) and James Maddren’s complex percussion patterns, the trio went into a funked-up version of Willow Weep - and what a revelation that was.

Blake seems to move effortlessly between long-lined explorations and staccato passages full of ideas, one following after another. He seems at ease bringing fresh ideas to standards like this one, but also to pop tunes. The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows not only featured Blake’s varied work but the remarkable combination of Maddren’s delicate brushwork and Stanley’s subtle chording on the organ. At one point Stanley offered an extended Bach-like passage before moving on – an appropriate choice of mode for a song that cries out for the kind of new thinking the trio brought to it.

Ross Stanley has emerged in recent years as a major force. This is the first time I’ve heard him on the Hammond and I was hugely impressed with the way in which he has extended the instrument’s voice to embrace the kind of pianistic sensibility which can sometimes get lost in the sustaining chording or rapid improvised passages of the post-Jimmy Smith era. The Bach-like cantata in God Only Knows wasn’t the only innovation – nearly every number brought out a fresh idea. James Maddren is another musician who seems to be in constant demand and it’s obvious why. The intensity of his playing has that rare combination of subtlety, control and passion and at Southport he was the glue holding together the interplay between trio members.

Interesting original compositions during the evening included Blake’s tribute to Charles Mingus The Song That Lives Inside, a delicate balance once again enhanced by Maddren’s brushes. The intensity of the climax was outstanding. Maddren also gave us a brilliant solo in the Brazilian-inspired The Beauty Within.

Based in New York, saxophonist/composer Seamus Blake is a leading figure in contemporary jazz. He was born in Britain but brought up in Vancouver. Choosing albums by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin as two of his five all-time greats probably points to his early influences but his jazz skills were honed at Berklee and a number of his subsequent collaborations came from friendships made there with players like Guillermo Klein, Scott Kinsey, Chris Cheek, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner and Jordi Rossy. His time with the Mingus Big Band between 1995-2004 was obviously a formative experience as well. Superconductor is Blake’s most ambitious project so far and was released in December 2015. The album includes Nate Smith, Matt Garrison, Scott Kinsey and a seven-piece orchestral ensemble with guest appearances by John Scofield and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

A superb evening on several fronts: Ross and Maddren were on sparkling form, Seamus Blake confirmed his status as a leading contemporary musician and Southport showed once again how small festivals can be adventurous in programming. A big thanks to Geoff Matthews for all he’s done for this festival; well done Orpheus on a great initiative and good luck to Neil Hughes.

[Run by musician Kim Macari and her husband Riley Stone-Lonergan in partnership with NORVOL, a network of voluntary jazz promoters in the North of England, Orpheus is a touring network that brings internationally renowned jazz artists to work with UK musicians to create work and perform in intimate venues. With funding from the Arts Council Orpheus is supporting small clubs to programme adventurously and allowing audiences across the north to experience live jazz up close.]

Photo by Robert Burns

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