Seamus Blake ‘Guardians of the Heart Machine’ 2LP/CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 4/5

Heralded as one of the most influential saxophonists of his generation, this is Seamus Blake’s eighth release as leader, and his first for Whirlwind Recordings. For this album the London born, Vancouver raised saxophonist has brought his considerable experience and teamed up with three exciting players originally from the French scene – pianist Tony Tixier, double bassist Florent Nisse, and drummer Gautier Garrigue. For this session, the ‘French Connection’ concept was pitched by jazz aficionado Olivier Saez. Blake explains: “He was interested in hearing me alongside some younger, top of the line French musicians. Olivier passionately puts time and energy into music, and I was blown away by his organisation and generosity when we toured France and Spain. I enjoyed how the quartet worked together, prompting us to then record over two days at Studio de Meudon, Paris.”

Blake wrote and arranged especially for these artists. “My idea was to bridge what I consider elements of European and American styles, writing music I like to play, but also with a European sensibility, including classical harmony and certain types of groove.” And this certainly is evident across the nine tunes on the album, with influences like Michael Brecker and Chris Potter evident throughout the recording.

Blake seems to relish the partnership with his fellow musicians, with the quartet as a whole putting in an exemplary band performance, whilst sparkling individually with verve and vigour, energy and enthusiasm. But it is very much Blake at the fore and he’s on top form here, with some of his soloing reaching stunningly creative and magical heights.

That verve and vigour is evident in the title track, whose anthemic drive and melodic hooks are informed by Blake’s indie-rock interest, an emphatic statement of purpose. The loping gait of ‘Vaporbabe’ was inspired by the 9/8 hand-drum and clapping rhythms of a street band in Istanbul, but it doesn’t take long for the tune to take off with an unerring, pounding precision. Furtive ‘Sneaky D’ confirms the saxophonist’s penchant for strong melody, sparking off his rhythm section’s vitality, and confirming the quality of this band. Eddie del Barrio’s ‘I’m OK’ echoes the lusciousness of Stan Getz and Kenny Barron’s recording, Blake enjoying the space to solo on its elegant changes. There’s an innate beauty to this track that allows Blake to show his feel and passion. The bristling ‘Lanota’ extends the band’s sense of exploratory freedom, as does ‘Wandering Aengus’, taking WB Yeats’ poem as inspiration to traverse different key centres. ‘Betty in Rio’ (a contrefact on Benny Golson’s slow-swinging ‘Along Came Betty’) leads to Tixier’s amiable, countryfied ‘Blues for the Real Human Beings’ which shows once more the versatility and style that permeates its way through this quartet with skillful and intelligent playing. The album closes with ‘The Blasted Heath’, an odd addition to the album, it is Blake’s oblique observation of humanity’s impact on our planet. The lyrics and the style in which it is sung are deep, dark and very engaging, though I’m not so sure it sits comfortably with the balance of the rest of the tunes on the album.

“For me, Jazz is essentially about improvising and the beauty of a solo.” explains Blake. And this is essentially what you get with “Guardians of the heart machine.”

Mike Gates