It is sometimes said of symphonic works that the power of music is in the writing, not the size of the orchestra—and much the same applies to jazz ensembles, but with the emphasis on the improvisation. By any measure, the Seamus Blake band is a ‘power trio’—and powerful in all the ways that make for a sensational gig. Blake’s tenor sound is rich and direct; strong-voiced but carefully and beautifully modulated; precise at every speed and across the registers; and over the two-hour span of his playing, as good a demonstration of the tenor saxophone’s many moods and voices as we’ll ever be likely to hear.
One of the fascinations of a trio comprising only tenor, Hammond organ and drums is that the familiar formats for jazz performance open to quartets and quintets might easily appear to be more limited for such a group. They confronted this potential limitation by making a feature of it, devoting both sets to performances of 15 minutes or more. Of course, this required a remarkable degree of stamina on the part of Seamus Blake. As they say in jazz circles, he must have iron chops. But still more remarkable was his improvisatory skill.
It takes a great deal of inventiveness to build, sustain and conclude compelling solo work on that scale—and it was fascinating to follow how from simple motifs he was able to enlarge and embellish them; and if many of us got lost in the inversions on the inversions, we soon knew that he would always get us ‘home.’
His playing was a marvellous combination of power and finesse.
The Hammond organ has uniquely wide expressive qualities—and concomitant technical demands, easily forgotten when Ross Stanley is on the bench. His keyboard playing alone was so varied, so sensitively attuned to the demands of the songs and so responsive to Blake and drummer James Maddren, one can only wonder over his ability to produce the bass line on foot pedals at the same time. He had a stunning range of voices at his command: a light liturgical intro, rousing blues runs, those stalking bass notes, full-throated blasts and intricate right-hand improvisations that were the musical equivalent of turning cartwheels.
James Maddren could certainly drive the proceedings along at their generally upbeat and sometimes breakneck pace, but if evidence were needed that this was a carefully integrated trio performance, it was there in his playing: even at the fastest tempos, his moves had a deliberation and precision that is surely the mark of his considerable musicality.
In short, they played their hearts out—and in the process, won a considerable number.
Seamus Blake – tenor sax
Ross Stanley – Hammond organ
James Maddren – drums
© Jim Whitman