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An AAJ Interview with Chris Speed

AAJ Staff By

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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.

compose—organize

improvise—live

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.

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