Martin Speake: His Ideal
In '01 Speake recorded one of his most unique albums, the trio album Exploring Standards with Mick Hutton and Tom Skinner. With a vast number of artists interpreting standards, what makes Speake's take on the subject so different is that the approach was to look at each tune as a miniature, with most tunes running around the four minute mark, and some, including Sonny Stitt's "The Eternal Triangle," lasting a brief thirty-eight seconds. Monk's "Evidence" is presented as a surprisingly melodic and inventive one-and-a-half minute drum solo.
"I know Mick Hutton gets bored really quickly, so I knew I had that threat under me," Speake muses. "But, seriously, it's a nice idea doing really short takes; I think it can sound incredibly fresh. I'm not Charlie Parker, I can't play a hundred choruses, and I think that as I get older I am becoming more and more about playing concisely and economically, whereas when I was younger and couldn't play as well I'd play far too long. I try to think about it a bit more now.
"Two minutes is a long time, three minutes is a long time," continues Speake, "and I'm very proud of that album mainly because of the other two players. I think it's one of the best documentations of Mick's playing, and in light of his recent problems it's especially important. He's on a lot of other recordings, but I don't think he's on any trio albums where he's that exposed, where he's at the whole centre of the music, so for me that's like a tribute to him, that record."
In late '02, Speake and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, whom Speake had also met in Banff in '90, teamed up for a short UK tour, performing only ballads. "That was his idea," says Speake. "We thought about doing our own tunes when I was getting the tour together, and then he said he'd been thinking about doing just ballads, so I said fine as I knew they'd be slightly different from what they are normally, and I love playing ballads."
Iverson and Speake come from very different backgrounds, with very different influences and emphases, and the resulting recording, My Ideal , recorded in just four hours at the end of the tour, reflects the tension, the push-and-pull that these differences create. "Ethan's very textural, and dynamically he's much more extreme than I am," Speake says, "much more dramatic. I come more from the lyricism of Bill Evans and he comes more from rhythmic approach of Monk. In fact, Ethan is one of the few piano players who will say that he doesn't really like Evans. Evans, of course, had a major drug problem for most of his career, and Ethan says that, while some people could play under the influence, it really affected Evans' playing, and that he really rushed in the latter part of his career."
An album that is sure to help put Speake on the international stage is his forthcoming ECM recording with Paul Motian, Bobo Stenson and Mick Hutton, recorded in '02 at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. While the recording is relatively recent, the group has actually played, intermittently, for ten years. "About '93 I'd been listening to Paul's music a lot," Speake explains, "and I thought, 'I've got to play with this guy before I'm gone, or before he's gone.' So I sent him a tape of In Our Time and asked if I got some gigs would he do the dates. A week or so later he got back to me, said the album sounded great and of course he'd do it. So I got John Paricelli and Mick Hutton, and we played mostly my tunes, but a couple of Paul's as well, and did about a week of gigs, including a well-paying festival gig in Ireland that tied the whole thing together.
"So then I thought, 'I have to keep this relationship going,'" continues Speake, "but it was very difficult, and it didn't happen again for another seven years. I made a proposition to the promoter of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, that he commission me to get an international group together. He went for it, and I got Paul, Mick and Bobo, I wrote the music for it and fixed up two weeks of gigs consecutively from there. I got decent funding from the Arts Council, so on top of the Festival commission it was going to be one of the best tours I'd done, not having to worry about the money. It worked out really well, everyone just wanted to play and we did two weeks with no days off.
"Around that time, I think, either Paul or Bobo had mentioned it to Manfred Eicher," Speake continues," because the group was working and they were both into it. Then a couple of years later we did another tour, but the funding fell through. It was incredibly stressful for a number of reasons, but again it was mentioned to Manfred, and I also called him and he knew about it. So we fixed up a time to record, but it was something like six months after we had done that last tour.
"It was a challenge working with Manfred, as he's an incredibly hands-on producer," concludes Speake, "it was the hardest thing I've ever done. He wanted everything a certain way and he was actually in the studio with us while we were recording, which was stressful. He'd be singing my tunes to me, telling me how they should go, and he'd be gesticulating around the room with his arms, saying, 'it should be more flowing, like this.' He clearly knows what he's doing, though; although I haven't heard the session since we recorded it, it will be interesting to hear how it turns out."