Martin Speake: His Ideal
Aside from Ornette Coleman turning his head around at an early age, Speake cites two other main influences. "Keith Jarrett is a primary influence conceptually," Speake says. "There's a very high degree of melodicism in his music, which I think is paramount for him. Also, he's a totally committed improviser. I think it's quite interesting to compare piano trios, to see how loose, unrehearsed and very spontaneous he is. I had a student who was comparing Brad Mehldau to Jarrett. Brad, of course, is great as well, but in a very different way; when we actually worked out what was going on in two different versions of "All the Things You Are" it became obvious that Brad was incredibly worked out and Keith was very spontaneous. He's a very in the moment kind of player, which is why you hear mistakes on some of his albums. It's a bit of a shame that he doesn't compose any more, all those '70s albums with the American and European Quartets are incredibly influential. At different times I've transcribed most of the tunes from My Song and Belonging ; I've never played them, but did it to soak up what's going on melodically and harmonically. While I don't have the same sense of harmony, I think it has influenced me.
"Another big influence is Paul Motian," continues Speake, "who comes out of Jarrett and Bill Evans. As a matter of fact I really like Paul's tunes, simple yet incredibly beautiful. His trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano is probably my favourite band in jazz, especially their first album, It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago.
While Speake was at Trinity, he would also visit the nearby Royal Academy of Music, where he now teaches, and met a number of musicians, including saxophonists Mike Mower, and Howard Turner, "After we left college, this would be in the early '80s, we were doing a few gigs," Speake says, "and Mike got commissioned by the BBC to take a group to a jazz festival in Zurich. He wanted to take a thirteen-piece band and they would only allow a six-piece, so arranged to take four woodwind players, bass and percussion. He wrote a load of music for it and we did the gig, which we all really enjoyed, so we thought we'd drop the bass and percussion and just do it as four saxophone players. And that became Itchy Fingers. There was a bit of a resurgence of jazz interest by record labels at the time, people were putting a few gigs on, and in actual fact I was able to earn a living from that band for about two years. We played all over the world, Europe, South America, Africa, even the Lincoln Center. They loved us because we didn't have any gear - just four saxophones.
"The reason we became reasonably successful was because of a competition sponsored by Schlitz Beer," Speake continues. "Joe Zawinul was one of the judges, and we ended up winning it, and the performance was televised. The next day Virgin Records rang us up and asked if we wanted a record deal, which is pretty unusual. Virgin gave the band thirty thousand pounds, which was a lot of money, especially for a jazz band - even now - and two weeks in the studio, and that's when a lot of the friction began and it all started to go wrong. Although there are some very good things on the album, it's very produced, with a rhythm section, and a big band on some tracks; even McCoy Tyner came in and played a solo on one tune. I think we could have done a great record with just the four of us and three or four days in the studio, but I think Mike, who was the main leader in the band, wanted to do it this way, as a showcase for his composition and arranging skills.
"Still, the album was very well received by critics all over the world, and there are some very good things on it," Speake continues, "although much of it sounded quite ordinary. Then we did another album on a subsidiary label, Venture, and Airto Moreira played on it. There are some great things on it, but for me the best times were when it was just the four of us. We did very well, and could get festival gigs all over the place, but it became a bit more of a show. I've always been committed to improvising and things being different, and it became too much of a show for me, very little improvising and the pieces became very fast - in the end I couldn't play them, I'd never played anything so hard in my life.
"So this friction began to bubble up," concludes Speake, "although it wasn't just me. At one stage the band had fallen out really, but in the end I got sacked and that ultimately turned out fine because I had a concept for my own thing and it did me a lot of good, but at the time I lost a lot of confidence because it wasn't done in a very nice way. So that's my history with the band. They went on to record two or three more albums, interestingly enough as just a quartet."
In 1990 Speake attended a summer workshop in Banff, Canada, where he met up with Steve Coleman. It was to be an important time for Speake. "He was incredibly influential," Speake explains, "not necessarily in the way he plays, because if you're going to play like that then that's all you can do, you have to devote your life to playing like that. Aesthetically it's not really where I want to be, although I do think he's one of the most important alto saxophonists in the past thirty years. He's very original and very outspoken, and these are attributes of his that are influential and significant.
"One of the biggest influences was that he didn't use any music," Speake continues. "Everything he did was by ear. I do quite a lot of teaching now, and I never use any music. If I say we're going to learn a tune we learn it straight off the CD, or I tell the student to go home and learn it. It develops the ear, and is very important."