Seamus Blake

Interviewed by Cory Weeds
March 28, 2002

The following interview, conducted via email, followed the announcement that ex-Vancouver saxophonist, Seamus Blake, had won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Award.
Read the story.

André Lachance, Seamus Blake, Dylan van der Schyff
at The Cellar, 2001
Photo by Cory Weeds

Cory Weeds: Congratulations on winning this years Thelonious Monk Award. You have said in the past that you are not a big fan of so called 'competitions.' What made you enter this particular competition?

Seamus Blake: A student of mine entered and I thought why not? I don't like competition — that's true — but it seemed like an opportunity to meet Wayne Shorter, say hello to Josh Redman and the other judges, play some of my music with a great rhythm section and . . . who knows? . . . win a prize??! It was hard on the nerves and I don't think I will ever do anything like it again.

What do you think the 'immediate' benefits of this award will be?

The immediate benefits . . . pay off my visa bill . . . a couple gigs have fallen in my lap. I think there will be more opportunities to play my own gigs and my own music in the future.

You were awarded a good chunk of money which is to be used for educational purposes. Do you have any idea what you'll do with that portion of the award? If you use it for private lessons with someone, who will it be and why that person?

I haven't really decided any of that yet. I would like to learn more about computer audio recording and midi . . . and I would like to study composition.

Canadians and, in particular, British Columbians take a lot of pride in their musicians "making" it on the international scene. Does it mean a lot to you that you are Canadian and do you feel that you as well as the others such as Renee Rosnes are ambassadors for Canadian jazz?

I'm not sure I want the ambassador title. I feel lucky to have grown up in a beautiful place like Vancouver but at the same time I am not a patriot. When I go to Ireland they sort of think of me as their own. "His name is Seamus he's got to be Irish!" I was born in London so some people think of me as British . . . but I was raised in Vancouver and have a Canadian passport. I don't feel allegiance to any country really . . . but if I had to be from somewhere Canada is a good place to be from.

You have recorded several records as a leader on Criss Cross as well as several for different independent labels. You have played / recorded with the likes of John Scofield, The Mingus Big Band, Victor Lewis and Bill Stewart, to name a few, yet you have not landed a 'major' record contract. Is this a goal of yours and is it important to you? If yes, why? If no, why not?

Yes and no. I want the opportunity for as many people as possible to hear my music but the industry is changing very quickly these days. Many artists have been "dropped" and there is very little signing going on at the moment. As long as I have artistic freedom and decent distribution I don't really care about being with a major label. At this point I enjoy my freedom.

You were recently involved in a Canadian "Sax Summit". Talk about how it was to be up there with all those saxophonists. Was it cutthroat or was it friendly competition?

It was really fun! They are all great guys and great players. We had fun listening to each other and there were plenty of jokes! Saxophone seems to me not such a competitive instrument. Maybe it's because of the fact that there are so many of us or that people like Coltrane were so humble and nice.

I mentioned some of the people you have played / recorded with, the award you've just won. You've done these things at a relatively young age. How do you keep yourself motivated to keep learning and moving forward?

The minute I stop learning or moving forward I may as well be dead. Playing new things is exciting and gives me reason to get up in the morning. Plus music is so endless and perfection is such an endless infinite realm.

Personally I think that 'innovation' is overrated. However, I do think its important to establish your own voice. Musicians that play straight-ahead jazz often get labelled as copycats or accused of not doing anything new. What are your thoughts on that?

There are copy cats in every style. Jazz . . . punk . . . rock . . . folk. Finding your own voice is the process of nurturing original thought and exploring creativity. Often, for me, avoiding the obvious has become instinct. Before you can do that though you have to learn the obvious or the "tradition" then you can build on that or extend it or rebel against it. For me it was also a process of opening up to all kinds of other music and influences.

What are your plans for the next 6 months?

Tours/recordings/gigs/albums etc. I am doing some gigs with the Mingus Band in April. There is a new CD out. I have some gigs throughout the summer with my acoustic quartet. Bill Stewart, Larry Grenadier and Kevin Hays. I'm playing at the Senator in June with those guys and there might be plans to make a live CD out of it. I'm playing around town with the Bloomdaddies and our new CD is out. I am also working on a rock band with my girlfriend in which I play guitar and sing as well as some saxophone. I also have kind of a groove quartet that I toured Ireland with. I did some gigs with Charlie Hunter and we had a great time. We talked about doing some more playing.

Thank, Seamus.

Thanks Cory! Look forward to playing The Cellar!

Cory Weeds is a Vancouver jazz musician, radio host, and owner of Vancouver's premier live jazz venue, The Cellar.