An AAJ Interview with Chris Speed


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I started really listening to jazz when I was 16. I remember the Tex Beneke solos with Glenn Miller and hearing Sonny Stitt play the blues and the sax solo from 'Feels so Good'...
In an effort to avoid having their work artistically typecast, many musicians have chosen to incorporate a variety of styles into their own vernacular. Although this frequently results in fascinating results, there are several distinct challenges and problems with the eclectic approach.

The first is simply that of failing to convince, perhaps better stated as a lack of credibility, a sort of musical equivalent to "hey, look at me, I can do that too!" or worse "you want that? We can do that!" This is usually the consequence of failing to understand the style(s) being adopted.

The second is that of falling short of fully merging the styles, where the music is not so much integrated as it is bolted together. While there have been notable successes with this method (the resultant juxtapositional conflicts can be both intriguing and frightening), the general result is a clunky, stilted quality, with music that lunges and staggers, functional yet malformed (or as the high tech community might say "it"s kludgy"). This is usually the consequence of successfully understanding, yet failing to absorb the style(s) being adopted.

The third is that of the musical whole simply being equal to (or somewhat less than) the constitutional elements. Although the music may be convincing, and may be lithe and fluid in execution, the result is simply flat and formulaic. Elements are merely borrowed and subsequently proportioned in a variety of ways with predictable and disappointing results. This lack of synergy is usually the consequence of successfully understanding and successfully absorbing, yet failing to FEEL the style(s) being adopted.

But fear not, gentle reader, All About Jazz is not reporting the death of eclecticism. In fact, and at the risk of shameless self-promotion, one need look no further than the virtual pages of AAJ to find a multitude of musicians who take on and transcend the challenge of eclecticism. Perhaps it can be said that these musicians avoid being having their work categorized, labeled, or otherwise classified, by simply creating their own categories, labels, and classifications?

If so, then saxophonist/clarinetist/composer/improviser Chris Speed is surely one of these musicians. Although having come to prominence in 1995 as a member of Tim Berne"s bloodcount (appearing on the legendary and now semi-mythical trilogy of bloodcount cds released by JMT), Mr. Speed had previously achieved well-deserved respect in the band Human Feel (with Andrew D"Angelo " clarinet, Jim Black " drums, and Kurt Rosenwinkel " guitar) a precociously eclectic ensemble in their own right. Mr. Speed had also recorded with the large ensemble Orange Then Blue, contributing one of his own compositions as the opening track to WHILE YOU WERE OUT (1992, GM Recordings).

Since that time, Mr. Speed has appeared on nearly 40 other recordings (refer to "Chris Speed discography" below) including work with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassists Mark Dresser and Michael Formanek, cellist Erik Friedlander, pianists Myra Melford and Satoko Fujii, and saxophonists Briggan Krauss and John Zorn.

While keeping up the daunting challenge of being a sideman in (and on) demand for the above named, since 1997 Mr. Speed has taken up the equally intimidating role of band leader with three ensembles: the quartet yeah, No (including Cuong Vu " trumpet, Skuli Sverrisson " bass, and the seemingly ubiquitous Jim Black " drums), the quartet Pachora (co-led with Messrs. Sverrisson and Black but with Brad Shepik " guitar and various stringed instruments in lieu of Messr. Vu), and the Chris Speed Trio (with Jamie Saft " keyboards and Ben Perowsky " drums).

But most significant about these ensembles, is that none of them sound alike. To be sure the musical contributions of each member allow each to be distinguished as an individuals, so that at a "component level" (to borrow another hi-tech term), the singular characteristics (if not idiosyncrasies and downright eccentricities) allow discrete identities to shine through. But at a "system level" (sorry, but yours truly is a hi-tech kind of guy) true differentiation of group to group is undeniable. The outcome is that Pachora is utterly unlike yeah, No and this despite a 75% overlap in personnel (nevertheless the presence of said personnel is unmistakable). Very tasty indeed and a clear testimony to the diverse talents and capabilities of the musicians involved.

But what of the Chris Speed Trio and their debut, the curiously titled IFFY (2000, Knitting Factory Works)?

Of IFFY, AAJ modern jazz editor Glenn Astarita writes: "Chris Speed adds new meaning to the phrase 'power organ trio' with his latest endeavor... Speed utilizes the laudable talents of keyboardist Jamie Saft who is rapidly evolving into a dynamo of lofty proportions and the equally adept, hard hitting drummer/bandleader Ben Perowsky, as the Trio pursues power-organ grooves with a modern-jazz slant" Chris Speed possesses a true renaissance spirit! Along with the band Pachora who meld "Balkan and North African motifs" with modern jazz ideologies, Iffy marks yet another new direction for this modern day stylist. Basically, Chris Speed is one of modern-jazz" great young explorers who along with a select few are reforming or modifying traditional concepts while pursuing novel philosophies in conjunction with often mind-bending technical acumen!"

All About Jazz: Your bio states that you were raised on classical music and began playing piano at age 5. Could you please tell All About Jazz about your earliest musical memories with regards to these?

Chris Speed: We had an ancient neglected upright that my mother and my sister played occasionally. I wanted to play it. I begged to take lessons from a musical family down the block. When we tuned it, we found a mouse nest in the strings (no mice though " I guess they tired of hearing "Love Story"). The piano was in the basement, the coldest and scariest place in the house. After playing late at night I would literally run up the stairs in case something (monster) would trap me between the piano room (safe haven) and the stairs (escape hatch).

Playing "The Entertainer" and the theme from SWAT for my first grade class was my big stage debut. Another early piece I learned was "Come Sail Away", which I can still play! Also I can still play "Open Arms" but I forget the bridge. Which is too bad, because now I know that's what all the girls really want to hear. At least, my girl.

Mainly, I studied the simple classical literature of Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, and Chopin. And I was involved with the Seattle Young Artist competitions, where I would get my ass kicked consistently by mostly Asian girls.

I liked sports. I wrestled and skied. Played soccer, baseball. Vandalized the neighborhood, and practiced music enough to sound good. Relatively.

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...

AAJ: What do you believe were the most important musical insights you achieved during work with Human Feel?

CS: Human Feel was the basis for everything I do today. My ideas about spontaneity, intensive energy, collective improvising, and just going for it were developed with Human Feel.

AAJ: As follow up, are there any plans for further Human Feel recordings?

CS: No plans. But we'll record again someday...

AAJ: You've recorded twice with Orange Then Blue, WHILE YOU WERE OUT and HOLD THE ELEVATOR. Aside from the span of years separating them, what were the most profound differences between these two experiences?

CS: There was a rub between the experimental and straight-ahead people that was pretty obvious by the later recording. The band seemed to be having an identity crisis at that time, like whether to keep doing songs in a Gil Evans fashion or to focus on more radical material.

AAJ: What have you learned from working with Orange Then Blue?

CS: I enjoyed working with OtB. It was where I met Matt Darriau, who introduced me to the world of East European music. And at the beginning of my time in the band we were exploring some interesting synthesis of free(er) jazz and world music. It was also my first experience writing for and introducing my concepts of free/collective improvising to a larger ensemble.

AAJ: What were the circumstances that led to your working with Tim Berne and bloodcount?

CS: I was a big fan of FULTON ST. MAUL, and loved the duo shows he did at the Middle-East in Boston with Hank Roberts. Tim had heard me with OtB at the Vancouver festival. Then he invited me to jam with him and Jim when I moved into "The Windsor Manor" in Brooklyn. It seemed like the next day he added me to his trio with Formanek and Jim for a West Coast tour, and that was it. I'm glad I can read music (piano lessons), because his music is extremely demanding, technically and conceptually.

AAJ: What do you believe that you learned from working in bloodcount that you could not have learned anywhere else?

CS: bloodcount was the biggest influence in my first years in NYC—by the sheer fact of immersion—mammoth rehearsals, month long tours, and epic compositions. Witnessing how a band is run, watching Tim deal with music and business (promoters) was invaluable. Tim is so amazing, a great composer and visualizer of the bigger picture, as well as a unique improviser with a great sound. I really respect that he treated me as an equal from point one, even though I was really intimidated the first few gigs. He encouraged extreme-ism in the improvising. It's obvious when you listen to the band improvise that we all trust each other, which is a big reason why it is so successful musically.

AAJ: At the risk of inadvertently forcing you to label the band or its music, how would you describe Pachora and the music the band makes?

CS: East European Rom influenced downtown jazz that isn't klezmer.

AAJ: As follow up, do you feel the term "modern jazz" should be used in reference to Pachora? Why or why not?

CS: Sure. East European Rom influenced modern jazz that isn't klezmer.

AAJ: A pleasant surprise for some listeners (at least for this one) was the cover of David Bowie's "Man Who Sold the World"? for the Pachora AST cd. What was the motivation for covering this?

CS: It's a great song.

AAJ: For AAJ readers who may not be familiar with your solo work, what do you feel are the similarities (aside from personnel) and differences between your recordings YEAH, NO (Songlines, 1997) and DEVIANTICS (Songlines, 1999)

CS: Well, the similarities are that it is the same band, and the same label. The differences—well, the 2nd record (Deviantics) has more grooves. Jim debuts his melodica! We play a song that Skuli wrote. We also do a song that was originally recorded with Human Feel. And we did a tour with the tunes before recording. Before the first record (Yeah No) I made the guys go to band camp in Pennsylvania for a week.

AAJ: When and how was the instrumentation/personnel for the trio on IFFY arrived at? (or alternatively, did you conceive this as a clarinet-sax/organ-synths/drums trio or as the Speed, Saft, and Perowsky? Or both?) note: I hope this question makes sense. If not, I guess what I really mean to ask is if you intended to group specific instruments or individual musicians...

CS: I generally think and write for the musicians. I wanted to work with Jamie and Ben and we did a couple of gigs at the alt.coffee that were mostly improvised, and subsequently the Iffy book was written after I lived with the tapes of those gigs (I love my Sony cassette recorder). Similar to the process I went thru for the first yeah No record, where I was inspired by the directors comments from the laser disc of Mike Leigh's "Naked". He described a process where actors improvised scenes in order to create a very specific script. Anyway, what I wrote for IFFY took a radical shift from the improvisations—instead of a constant collage of varying textures acting simultaneously, I was more specific with the zones we would go to. And I used blues and swing for a basis, then twisted it into a deranged angle on jazz.

AAJ: At the risk of asking a question similar to asking a parent to name his or her favorite child, is there any one track on IFFY that is your favorite?

CS: No.

AAJ: As follow up, is there any one track that you feel encapsulates the band/disc?

CS: No

AAJ: (maybe an easier question) are there any specific inspirations or personal events that underlie any of the tunes? If it isn't getting too personal, could you please share any anecdotes about the how and why these tracks came to be?

CS: Well, it isn't a tribute record, I just wrote some music.

I will say that the idea was to record a jazz album as dub as possible, and Chris and Danny at Good and Evil totally hooked it up, they tracked it on a 2" 16-Track Deck at 15 ips; and mixed down to a 1/2" at 30 ips and we compressed the shit out of it, and put the mixes as in your face as we could. I especially love the crackly organ...

AAJ: You've worked with a diverse range of musicians. What recordings do you believe have been the most beneficial, challenging, satisfying, rewarding, etc.? Why?

CS: I can't single out any recording as the "most" of anything. I tend to see things on more of a continuum. I just try to be in the moment I'm in, have fun, and make good music.

AAJ: What musicians that you have never worked with before would you most like to work with? Why?

CS: Bjork. Whadda ya mean "why?"

AAJ: What is the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you while performing or recording?

CS: Well, as Briggan mentioned in his wonderfully pithy interview, we did a Good Kitty gig at Walkers in Tribeca where we were heckled out of the place by some asshole, but not before playing a 3 minute freak out that we wish had been recorded. I guess that was "funnyÃ?—? (now) and "embarrassing" (then) but "annoying" is more descript.

And then there was the time...

AAJ: What other projects can we expect from Chris Speed in 2000-2001?

CS: hmmm...

The 3rd yeah NO record, Emit, will be out in October on Songlines. Followed by a tour in Europe in November. And I'm learning to speak Italian.

CHRIS SPEED discography*

as a leader

with Chris Speed Trio
Chris Speed Trio—IFFY (Knitting Factory Records)

with yeah, NO
EMIT (Songlines) (fall 2000 release)
DEVIANTICS (Songlines)
YEAH, NO (Songlines)

as a co-leader

with Pachora
AST(Knitting Factory Records)
UNN (Knitting Factory Records)

PACHORA (Knitting Factory Works)
Various Artists—A TRIBUTE TO DAVE BRUBECK (Avant) (with Pachora)

with Human Feel
SPEAK TO IT (Songlines)
WELCOME TO MALPESTA (New World/Countercurrents)
SCATTER (GM Recordings)
HUMAN FEEL (Human Use)

as a sideman

with Tim Berne
bloodcount—LOWLIFE (JMT)
bloodcount—MEMORY SELECT (JMT)
bloodcount—UNWOUND (Screwgun)
bloodcount—DISCRETION (Screwgun)
bloodcount—SATURATION POINT (Screwgun)

with Dave Douglas
SOUL ON SOUL (BMG / RCA Victor Records)
IN OUR LIFETIME (New World/Countercurrents)
STARGAZER (Arabesque)

with Mark Dresser
BANQUET (Tzadik)
EYE'LL BE SEEING YOU (Knitting Factory Records)

with Erik Friedlander

with Myra Melford
ABOVE BLUE (Arabesque Jazz)

with Orange Then Blue

with Satoko Fujii Orchestra
JO (Buzz-Records)
DOUBLE TAKE (East Works)

with others
Jim Black—ALAS NO AXIS (Winter and Winter) (fall 2000 release)
Raetus Flisch—MISSING BEAT (Brambus)
Michael Formanek—NATURE OF THE BEAST (Enja)
Mitchell Froom—DOPAMINE (Atlantic)
Goats and Trees—WHEN THE MORNING COMES (Rudy)
Jerry Granelli and Badlands—ENTER, A DRAGON (Songlines)
Hilmar Jensson—DOFINN (Jazzis)
Briggan Krauss' Good Kitty—GOOD KITTY (Knitting Factory Works)
Susan McKeown—BUSHES AND BRIARS (Alula)
Jamie Saft—SOFLANUT (Tzadik)
Ron Sexsmith—OTHER SONGS (Interscope)
John Zorn—BAR KOKHBA (Tzadik)
Various Artists—THE ALT.COFFEE TAPES (Katadin)

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