A Conversation with Seamus Blake

December 1, 2011

BY SEAN MURPHY

Saxophonist Seamus Blake is widely considered one of today’s most outstanding saxophonists, and has been hailed as one of the finest purveyors of contemporary jazz. In 2002, Seamus was awarded first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. As a leader, he has released six albums on Criss Cross Records, including his 1993 debut, The Call. He has also released one album on the Fresh Sound label, the critically acclaimed Live in Italy on  the Jazz Eyes label,  and most recently, Live at Smalls.  In the interview, Seamus Blake discusses his improvisation, compositions and influences.

JAZZed: Each great saxophonist has developed his own personal sound on the instrument. What has gone into the development of your tenor saxophone sound?

Seamus Blake: I began, as most saxophonists do, by imitating all the great masters. I learned solos by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Ben Webster, and many more. Even today, my sound has varying degrees of influence from all those players, but earlier on it was much more derivative. Sometimes I would play entire phrases lifted from Parker or Coltrane, but after awhile I began to edit myself. Instead of playing recognizable licks, I would try to improvise a melody. Part of wanting to be different was sometimes choosing not to play something.

Composing also helps to form an individual style. By working to develop your own repertoire, you inevitably put yourself in a more personal framework. Your songs reflect the kind of music you want to play, the drama you wish to create, and the kind of person you are.

I also think my sound has been influenced by other instruments and other music besides notable saxophonists. The Bach Cello Suites, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, and Shirley Horn’s singing and sense of space are some examples that have influenced me as much as Charlie Parker.

JAZZed: What types of techniques do you utilize to develop your harmonic and rhythmic concepts during improvisation?

SB: Like every player, most of my harmonic and rhythmic language comes from the tradition of jazz. Jazz is a language that we all learn to speak, and my playing techniques are built from studying the styles of my favorite musicians. I also incorporate classical harmonic and rhythmic concepts into my improvisation.

When I play, my main concerns are melody, rhythm, and mood. Am I singing through my horn? Can I make people dance? Am I playing drums with my saxophone? I want people to connect to the emotions I put into my music.

JAZZed: Of the saxophone players that have influenced you the most, what specific aspects of each individual’s playing do you either try to emulate or hold in high regard musically?

SB: I have learned many things from the saxophonists that have come before me. From Sonny Rollins I took rhythm and motivic development, and from John Coltrane I took tone, dedication of practice, spirituality, and his volcano of erupting ideas; Charlie Parker’s sound, the sheer inventiveness, endless melody and rhythm; Wayne Shorter’s composition, melody, zen; Stan Getz’s finesse, sound, romance; Dexter Gordon’s tone, melody, laid-back feel; Joe Lovano’s warmth of tone, incredible rhythm and pure improvising; Michael Brecker’s technical genius, pushing the limits of the saxophone and ewi playing; and Kenny Garrett’s beautiful tone and “outside” playing.

JAZZed: What musicians (of any style), excluding saxophonists, have impacted your sound, style, writing, improvisation, etc?

SB: I studied classical violin from age seven until fourteen, and to this day I am influenced and inspired by composers like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Mozart and Bartók. Growing up in the 1980s, I listened to the pop music of the times. The impact of Michael Jackson, The Police, Prince, and countless other bands and artists that were on MTV have also influenced me. Although I didn’t discover them until my early 20s, The Beatles made a huge impression on me. I have spent many hours learning their songs and studying their music. I have done the same with artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.

JAZZed: Your compositional skills are exceptional. How have you developed these skills beyond a basic blues and AABA structures?

SB: Composing takes as much work and practice as soloing. As I mentioned above, I have dedicated a lot of time to studying the works of many different artists. By starting with simple forms, I gained confidence and then tried more complicated forms. It’s a basic evolution that occurs in all art forms. A figure skater masters their basic turn before the triple reverse flip. It’s a natural outward expansion of technique. If you take a look at Wayne Shorter’s compositions over the years, his early songs have simpler forms. In later years, he uses more intricate and developed forms that are similar to classical music. A song like “The Three Marias” from his Atlantis recording is a good example of his more complex, masterful use of form.

JAZZed: How have you been able to successfully integrate electronics into your music as a jazz artist? Do you want to see more use of EWIs and other electronic sounds in jazz music today? 

SB: So far, my only successful contribution electronically has been the processing of my sax. I have mainly used it for color and timbre options. For so long, guitar players have used pedals to change their sounds. Other saxophonists like Eddie Harris and Michael Brecker have also used effects. One of my favorite effects is the wah-wah on the tenor. It can sound like a plunger mute on a trumpet or a funky guitar.

As far as the EWI goes, I’m still developing my ideas on it and haven’t recorded anything yet. Computers and software have become faster, more powerful, and more accessible, so in the future, I think we will see more EWI players and more jazz musicians experimenting with electronics. It will be interesting to see what people come up with.

JAZZed: What direction do you see jazz moving toward in the near future? Does your music embrace this trend?

SB: I have no idea where jazz is headed. So many people are doing different things. However, some general trends do prevail at the moment. Rhythmic complexity and the use of odd meters are big trends now. Sometimes I find a composition may suffer because too much attention is being focused on the use of odd meters. But I do think the interest in exploring new rhythms is great.  Another trend is mixing in more pop and rock elements. Jazz musicians are playing music with backbeats, doing covers of contemporary pop, such as Radiohead, and writing with forms closer to rock and pop as opposed to the AABA standard jazz song form. These are all good things that can help jazz in the long run. I think of it as diversifying the genre. Jazz has always grown with the help of other kinds of music.

As far as my own music is concerned, I try to write the best melodies I can. I want to create forms and harmonies that are inspiring to improvise on. I’m not worried about being innovative or a genius. I just want to create music that I like and hopefully some other folks will like it too.

JAZZed: Last year you performed at the US Navy International Saxophone Symposium. What was this experience like in regards to working with the Navy Commodores, playing new arrangements of your compositions, and interacting with the larger saxophone audience?

SB: I had fun playing with the Navy band and performing at the saxophone symposium. It was a thrill to play arrangements of my tunes. The band and audience were great and it was a fun concert.

JAZZed: What is one of the most profound musical lessons you have ever learned while either performing, practicing, studying the saxophone, or listening to other artists?

SB: I think the biggest lessons I have learned from music is that “you reap what you sow”, “practice makes perfect”, and in order to transcend mediocrity you must “let go of your ego.”

JAZZed: What are some lesser known recordings that have influenced your artistic direction, beyond classics like Kind of Blues and Giant Steps?

SB: Cannonball Adderley’s Live in San Francisco was one of the first albums that got me into jazz. Some others are: Miles Davis’s Jazz at the Plaza, John Scofield’s Meant to Be, Michael Brecker’s first solo album, Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, Joe Henderson’s Live at the Village Vanguard, Thelonius Monk’s Solo Monk, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw’s Double Take, Mulgrew Miller Wingspan, and Weather Report’s 8:30.

JAZZed: What is your advice to the younger generation of musicians on having success professionally as a saxophonist today?

SB: Having a career in jazz is difficult and not everyone is able to be so lucky.

If you want to be a successful musician, you must love music, play it all day, and prefer to be playing your instrument rather than doing anything else. Your playing should be distinctive, personal, at a high level, and you must be dedicated and hard working. Be honest with your abilities and be realistic with your goals.

Sean Murphy

Saxophonist Sean Murphy is currently pursuing his Master of Music Degree in Saxophone Performance from the University of North Texas. He also holds a Bachelor of Music Degree in Music Education from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

As an active performer, he is both an accomplished jazz and classical musician.  His articles on saxophone pedagogy and performance, as well as interviews with composers and notable saxophonists, have been accepted for publication in numerous distinguished music magazines and journals in North America, Europe, and Australia.

For more information visit www.seanmurphysaxophone.com.


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