Martin Speake: His Ideal
“ ...I think that as I get older I am becoming more and more about playing concisely and economically... ”
Alto saxophonist Martin Speake may be well-known in his native England but a bit of a well-kept secret when it comes to exposure in North America, where he deserves a wider audience. With a sound that is influenced by artists as diverse as Ornette Coleman, Paul Motian, Keith Jarrett and Steve Coleman, and a compositional style that embraces elements including Indian and Arabic music, he has already amassed a significant body of work that demonstrates his breadth, focus and ability to get inside a tune and find its essence. Fortunately his most recent recordings on the British Basho label, including his cooperative quartet record Secret and his recording of ballads in duet with The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, My Ideal , are finally receiving some attention on the west side of the Atlantic. With a pending ECM recording featuring Bobo Stenson, Mick Hutton and Paul Motian, it is only a matter of time before Speake finally gets his break and receives some well-deserved exposure on the North American jazz scene.
A Late Start
Banff and Steve Coleman
First Quartet and In Our Time
Trust and The Tan T'ien
Changes to the Quartet
Ethan Iverson and My Ideal
The International Quartet
Speake came to music relatively late. Growing up he listened to popular music of the late '60s and early '70s, including Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. "I listened to a lot of rock music," says Speake, "and went to loads of rock gigs, so I wanted a guitar. I remember ordering one of those learning-in-the-post kinds of things, where I got an acoustic guitar delivered with a book, but that didn't work at all, for some reason it didn't suit me at all. That was at fourteen or fifteen.
"I left school when I was about sixteen," continues Speake, "and I had a friend who played guitar, who played me a lot of jazz albums and turned me onto a lot of British jazz. But it seems to me that one of the first albums that I bought in jazz was Ornette Coleman's trio record, The Golden Circle , and I really identified with it because I found him incredibly melodic. So I went out and bought an alto saxophone.
"I had a not-very-nice first experience with that alto," Speake continues, "I bought one of those plastic ones that Ornette used to play; I just looked in a second-hand paper that sold musical instruments, and there was one available, so I got it, brought it home and couldn't really play it. I thought it was just me, so I went to a teacher and he said the alto was in a really bad state, and he didn't think we could buy parts for it, so I was immediately in tears. I remember my mother being very nice, though, and buying me another cheap alto, and I was set."
With no previous schooling, Speake began taking lessons to prepare him for studying music in college. "There was an incredibly nice music teacher," explains Speake, "who spent his time with me, one evening a week, just to get my knowledge of music theory up to scratch so that I could get into the college courses, because I hadn't done any music at school prior to that, and didn't know anything technically. This guy, a very nice guy, tutored me for a few months to get me to the required level of understanding. And at the same time I was also having lessons with a wind band saxophone/clarinet teacher, more of a technical thing really, to learn how to get around the instrument. Then I went straight into Trinity College for music.
"Surprisingly, at Trinity, the tutors there were ok technically for about a year or so," Speake continues, "but all I did was read classical music, play a classical repertoire, which was certainly good for me technically and musically, because I didn't know anything about it, but wanting to get into improvisation I had to be more-or-less self-sufficient. Jazz education in England thirty years ago was at quite a low level in terms of imparting knowledge; I was studying with a lot of my heroes, and these guys could play great but they really didn't remember how they had started out, or how to impart good practice routines."
It was at Trinity that he began making some connections that would allow him to develop as an improvising musician. He met pianist Simon Purcell, another overlooked British jazz player, who started up a jazz society at Trinity, and managed to obtain some work at a local pub. "Looking back on it we really couldn't play," Speake explains, "but we were keen, we rehearsed a lot, learned some standard tunes and listened to a lot of music. So that was the formative playing when I was at college. We had a quintet of players who were all studying classical music, but were all into jazz.
"I also remember answering an ad in Melody Maker from a pianist, Veryan Westin, who is involved in quite a lot of improvised music now, and I remember playing a lot with him then, and it was completely free, unstructured music. So I was playing tunes with Simon and free with Veryan, so they were two of my earliest playing experiences.