Alto saxophonist Martin Speake continues to be an all too well-kept secret in the UK. With a discography that has ranged from the more free-flowing extemporization of The Ta T'ien to the intimate Amazing Grace , from the world music view of Fever Pitch to a unique take on Exploring Standards , Speake's career has been defined by a clear sense of the lyrical that pervades everything he does. And with his work finally appearing on labels with wider distribution, listeners outside of the UK are finally getting the opportunity to find out what British audiences have known for over fifteen years: that Speake is a player who brings his own voice to every project, with an almost voracious appetite for different musical contexts.
His latest release, The Journey , documents a trio that Speake has worked with for fifteen years. Teamed with two of England's biggest proponents of Indian music, sitarist Dharambir Singh and tabla/ghatam player Sarvar Sabri, Speake demonstrates yet again that his larger world view makes anything possible.
With compositions that owe much to the classical Indian tradition, Speake and the trio manage to create something much more than just a Westerner dabbling in things Eastern or vice versa. Speake clearly understands the form and stays with the concept of chordal stasis, exploring instead the possibilities of melody and rhythm, with Western modal improvisation being the closest reference point. Singh and Sabri, on the other hand, broaden their vision and incorporate harmonies that, while feeling authentically of the Indian tradition, are clearly not. One example is "JT's Symmetrical Scale," which Speake has recorded more than once before, based on a scale common to pianist John Taylor's music. It has an eastern tinge, but with its alternating minor third and half-step, it requires Singh to alter the tuning of his instrument.
The overall complexion of the recording is trance-like and deeply spiritual. Only on the group improvisation "Playing in Todi" do things heat up. True to the raga form, Speake, Singh and Sabri take their time to explore the variations that a single scale can provide. And what is remarkable is how, as is the case in the best traditional Indian music, the musicians maintain interest on extended pieces, saying so much with so little. The hypnotic nature of the longer pieces on the record, including the nineteen-minute title track, have a way of bending time; pieces seem to flow from one to the next, feeling on one hand timeless, on the other hand over all too soon.
Throughout the record the trio feel tightly connected, with Speake and Singh empathic in the way that they range from personal solo flights to call-and-response to, seemingly out of nowhere, merging into tight unison. The Journey represents a true meeting of cultures. Sabri says it best: "This recording is not Indian music nor is it jazz. This is modern Britain."
Personnel: Martin Speake (alto saxophone), Dharambir Singh (sitar), Sarvar Sabri (tabla and ghatam)