The Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts kicked off its new Sierra Nights series Wednesday with a performance by the quartet of jazz tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake. The program was the first of a monthly series, held on Wednesday nights in the intimate setting of the Sierra Room Theatre, a room that, like the large Cerritos Center auditorium, can be formatted differently for programs ranging from jazz and cabaret to classical music and special events.
Blake was an unusual choice to start the series. He has been well regarded by his contemporaries since he made his first recording, with drummer Victor Lewis' band, nearly a decade ago. But he has not exactly had high visibility until earlier this year, when he won the 2002 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition.
In his Sierra Room set, Blake displayed the sort of talent that can be extremely effective in a competitive setting: a technical mastery of his instrument combined with a playing style emphasizing high-speed, improvisational flights. Sticking mostly to original pieces, he began the evening in somewhat tentative fashion, not quite managing to max out his solo expansiveness until the final pair of numbers. In those selections, in which his blazing speed was applied toward textural and dramatic goals, Blake offered a taste of his real potential.
He was impressively proficient. What was missing, though, was the sort of wide-open eclecticism present in his other activities--performing with the electronically oriented Bloomdaddies group as well as playing in the saxophone section of the Mingus Big Band. In addition, Blake's compositions are not yet up to the level of his playing, and his performance would have been enhanced by a larger quotient of more demanding musical settings.
Those carps aside, he is clearly a player to watch, once he finds a more effective focus for his abilities.
Pianist Kevin Hays, filling in for the originally scheduled Dave Kikowski, was a solid accompanist, if a somewhat less compelling soloist. Larry Grenadier provided, as always, a solid bass foundation. And drummer Bill Stewart, contributing some of the evening's most gripping moments, kept the music rhythmically and creatively alive.