Martin Speake: His Ideal
Following Itchy Fingers, Speake worked with a number of artists, including subbing, on occasion, in Django Bates' group, Loose Tubes. He also worked with artists including British saxophonist John Williams, recording the octet record, The Year of the Buffalo. But it was with the formation of his first quartet, featuring guitarist John Paricelli, bassist Steve Watts and drummer Steve Arguelles (brother of saxophonist Julian), where Speake began to develop his own concepts and compositional skills. Recorded in '92, his first album, In Our Time , was released in '94 on The Jazz Label, and demonstrated a number of key features of Speake's approach, most significantly a pure dedication to lyricism, and a compositional style that crossed a number of genre boundaries. Paricelli's guitar style seemed to marry the idiosyncratic best of Bill Frisell with the more linear approach of John Abercrombie. "John and I go farther back than the quartet," says Speake, "I've known him nearly twenty-five years, and we played in some fusion groups before starting my quartet, including one with Simon Purcell. Steve Arguelles was a very early developer, playing fantastic stuff when he was only eighteen. He moved to Paris about ten years ago, and he spends a lot of time there involved not just in jazz, but also doing some free playing and producing."
Guitarist Phil Lee is another British treasure who is less known on this side of the Atlantic, but perhaps more so for his work with progressive Canterbury groups in the '70s including Gilgamesh. Speake has worked intermittently with Lee for a number of years, recording the beautifully subtle album, Amazing Grace in '96. "It's more of a shock for me to hear those old Gilgamesh things," says Speake," because he's known here more like Jim Hall really. He knows loads of tunes, has a fantastic sense of harmony, a beautiful sound and plays incredibly quietly, very like Hall. We still play together, not a lot, just tiny little duo gigs occasionally. I would never be amplified, and Phil would play really quietly. This makes things feel very strange when you do the other gigs, where you're amplified, because you realize you're missing out on the degree of dynamics that you can have."
1996 turned out to be a very busy year for Speake. Along with the Amazing Grace recording, he recorded his second album with his quartet, Trust , as well as a duet recording with pianist Nikki Iles, which was to be the beginning of another long-term musical relationship. "I had heard of Nikki," Speake explains, "and I started teaching at a jazz summer school in Wales where she also taught, and we began playing together, it really seemed to click. I decided I wanted to record it, so we just went into the Royal Academy of Music studio, where I teach, and recorded The Tan T'ien in a couple of days, just a couple of mornings. We both chose tunes we liked, and then, at the end, we had an hour or so left and decided just to improvise, short improvisations but with a parameter for each one. Like playing in G and making it really diatonic, almost like classical plainsong. For another one, Nikki said she'd heard this Lee Konitz workshop where he said he'd play everything in minor thirds and semitones, so we used that as a starting point. Another was to do a swing thing, but open. So with all these little ideas we came up with nine improvisations that we alternated with the composed pieces on the album. I must say that I like playing completely free, but I do like having those little parameters as well."
Concurrent with Speake's interest in jazz improvisation and composition, he has always held a fascination for Middle Eastern and Indian music. "The majority of the world plays music that doesn't have much harmony in it," Speake explains, "it's only the west that has a lot of harmony, so it was a shift for me to listen to a lot of world music. This Irish bassist I know turned me onto Rabih Abou-Khalil, gave me a tape of some of his music and some other world music kinds of things, and I really liked them, so I went on this little craze for a while, picking up Abou-Khalil's recordings and transcribing them so I could internalize what was going on. It was around the same time as Steve Coleman influencing me, with things not always being in 4/4, and thinking about music more rhythmically.
"So I wanted to weigh into playing in this kind of way," Speake continues, "and put together a band to play music that was more rhythmically based, with a lot of unison lines, a very powerful unison thing with different instruments, and room for improvisation. The original band had John Paricelli in it, an acoustic bass guitarist named Dudley Phillips, and percussionist Paul Clarvis, who I used to play with Phil Lee in a trio, just around Paul's house, playing standards. Paul suggested two other percussionists, because he liked the idea of three percussionists, with him being the leader, setting the grooves, and trumpeter Chris Batchelor.
"So I wrote the music and rehearsed it," continues Speake, "and we did a tour but it wasn't quite right. I think John felt uncomfortable; it wasn't really his area, so I thought I'd change it. And I wanted an excuse to play with Oren Marshall, a great tuba player. I wrote tunes in five and seven, and all these other patterns. How it would come about was I'd listen to a recording and think that I really liked a groove. I'm a great one for stealing - steal a groove off an album, a three-and-a-half or four-and-a-half, and then on another thing I'd hear a scale that I hadn't heard before, and I'd write a tune around that scale."
The resulting album, Martin Speake's Fever Pitch , featured Speake with Batchelor, Clarvis and Marshall, along with string multi-instrumentalist Stuart Hall, and percussionists Dawson Miller and Dave Hassell. Predating some of Rabih Abou-Khalil's later works that included a similarly odd instrumental line-up, Fever Pitch was an important cross-genre recording that, sadly, was never released outside of England. "It was kind of a mixture of all the different things I was into at the time," Speake explains, "I was quite inspired during that period, with that area of music."
Unfortunately, busy schedules and a feeling that the larger ensemble was too rigid caused Fever Pitch, as recorded, to disband, although Speake did reform the band with guitarist Mike Outram, Oren Marshall and percussionist Asaf Sirkis. Since then Speake has pared it down even further. "I've started playing with Oren," says Speake, "and a young drummer in a trio, and we play some of that music. But we also do other material; I'm planning to do a Jackson Five tune and some Paul Motian tunes, with that line-up. I can tell you who I've been influenced by in that respect, and that's Ellery Eskelin, but just in the sense of an unusual line-up and a wide range of music. I don't think my music's going to sound anything like his because what I do with melodicism is very different, more textural; but I do like his concepts."