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An AAJ Interview with Chris Speed

By Published: May 4, 2006

AAJ: As follow up, how do you feel these early musical experiences manifest themselves in or affect your music today?

CS: The music I make today is the culmination of all of my experiences. That was just the beginning.

AAJ: What was the impetus to begin playing clarinet at age 11?

CS: I started on saxophone actually. My parents rented me an alto (in a smelly case), so I started on that. But my teacher (from the musical family down the street) convinced me to study clarinet instead. Because the line amongst reed players (or orchestral clarinet players) is that clarinet is harder to play than saxophone. So if you start on clarinet, it's easier later to play sax—where if you start on sax, you'll always sound kinda wanky on clarinet. Interesting logic, considering the difficulty to master any instrument.

AAJ: Your bio also states that you were "smitten by jazz and the tenor saxophone in high school." Could you please relate the circumstances that occurred here? (as examples, did an interest in jazz lead you to the tenor? Or vice versa? What records or artists were initial sources of fascination? , etc.)

CS: In junior high, I wanted to play in the Stage Band (i.e., jazzy big band). I played the alto—the one in the smelly case. But as fate had it, the tenor player (in the jazzy big band) was having trouble making the 6:30 am rehearsals. So my teacher, Bob Yetter (who actually played with us, and was my first mentor in jazz, who had a real sweet sound—ala Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter) told me to play the tenor. I played a solo (on one of those Hal Leonard charts) and I must have sounded really ok, because he said, "That's your horn."

I started really listening to jazz when I was 16. I remember the Tex Beneke solos with Glenn Miller (dad's records) and hearing Sonny Stitt play the blues (the first thing I transcribed) and the sax solo from "Feels so Good" (that wasn't in the radio version). (Is this interesting?)

Also joining H.B Radke's band of kids was a big transition for me. Playing in a big band of my peers, gigging around town, doing weddings etc., at that age was pretty cool. This is where I met Andrew D'Angelo and Jim Black. I started going to "jam sessions" and learning tunes and chords and all that... Andrew turned me on to a lot of jazz music I hadn't heard, like Count Basie. His high school was pretty advanced compared to the suburbia I was living in. Also Jim gave me a lot of must-hear tapes from his collection, especially when he went to Berklee College. Actually, it isn't so different now...

AAJ: Who would you list as sources of influence or inspiration? Do you feel the need to avoid influence or inspiration from becoming "imitation"? If so, what might you do to avoid this from happening?

CS: Besides the usual jazz heroes (Ornette, Monk, Albert Ayler, Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins), my biggest inspirations have been the people I've grown up with—Andrew D'Angelo and Jim Black early on, Skuli Sverrisson, Cuong Vu, Hilmar Jensson, Briggan Krauss; and people I've been fortunate enough to have worked for—Tim Berne, John Zorn, Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, Dave Douglas. (I'm just sticking to musicians here. Jazz musicians at that. I have influences in folk, classical, rock, pop, etc.)

In terms of influence versus imitation, I remember for a time listening only to saxophonists (mostly Coltrane), and you know what? It wasn't so healthy. At a certain point, it became routine, or some weird escape: transcribe-copy-imitate-worship-jazz-tenor-dork-itis. I mean, of course it's important to study the history of what you're into. And to thoroughly know someone's work is cool. And I'm grateful for all the inspiration it gave me to play. But I'm glad I stopped obsessing and moved on—to writing my own tunes, and starting my own bands. All of my current groups are influenced by a wide variety of genres, but I feel like what I make is my music, so the question of imitation doesn't occur to me.

AAJ: Can you differentiate between your identity as a composer and that as an improviser? Why or why not?

CS: Well, I always thought of myself as an improviser first, and a composer only when the band needed tunes. But recently I've been seeing the two as inseparable...I'm composing when I'm improvising, and I improvise inside of a composition. And my compositions are "written" based on improvisations.



AAJ: Do you have any techniques for restoring creative energy during composing, performing, recording? If so, what might they be?

CS: Yeah, when I'm tired, I go to bed.

AAJ: Your first band and recording was Human Feel. What were the events that led to the formation of this band?

CS: Human Feel is the name that Jim, Andrew and I put to any project that included the three of us when we lived, worked, played, fought, and partied together in Boston. Ultimately we found the ideal quartet version with Kurt Rosenwinkel, and played mostly at the Middle East in Central Square. The rest will be told in "Human Feel, the real story"

Andrew made the first record happen. He produced the session and wrote most of the tunes. He's always been prolific. It was Tower Records top seller for weeks! Of course, Andrew was the manager, and we all worked there...

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