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Martin Speake: The Thinking Fan's Saxophonist


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British alto saxophonist, Martin Speake, is one of the most adventurous and articulate musicians in a music peppered with creative artists. That he is not a household name—even within the proscribed and marginalised world of jazz—says more about the times than it does about Speake or his single-minded approach to his art.

Speake combines in his music a purposeful curiosity with a love of the jazz tradition. He is equally capable of flights into free improvisation and into the most challenging areas of jazz and of careful, astute re-examinations of its history. Yet, at its heart, lies a wonderful appreciation of melody and a strong sense of pulse and rhythm. Even when he moves into the most 'out' musical territory, his playing always has a remarkable lyrical quality to it.

Comparisons may be odorous, as Shakespeare's Dogberry cleverly remarked. However, if I had to compare Martin Speake with other players it would be with Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Lee Konitz, and perhaps also with Britain's other under-sung saxophone virtuoso Chris Biscoe. All seem equally comfortable and adept regardless of setting and each one has stretched the boundaries of jazz, albeit without the fanfares of more feted peers.

Speake has recently released three very fine albums on his own Pumpkin Records. Whether the naming of the label is meant to recall Cinderella or not, it does seem appropriate in its own way! Each record is distinctive and, with each, the music is beautifully and elegantly presented.

The first of these, and perhaps the best of the bunch, is Duos for Trio—The Music of Béla Bartok. It features a trio with Speake, cellist Matthew Forbes and young drummer and Royal Academy of Music (RAM) student Phelan Burgoyne. The second is Zephyr with violinist Faith Heleene Brackenbury and the third, Unquiet Quiet, involves a trio led by Phelan Burgoyne with Speake on alto and guitarist Rob Luft. These are records that say a great deal about Speake's unusual route to jazz—he studied classical saxophone at Trinity College of Music—and his personal philosophy of music and its aesthetic and ethical underpinnings.

The initiative for Duos for Trios came from Matthew Forbes, as Speake explains,

"The Bartok project was very spontaneous. I met Matthew when he was a classical student at the RAM, where I teach, years ago. He got in touch and asked if I would like to play. We got together and I suggested Phelan for the trio. We all bought our own tunes but Matthew bought Bartok's violin duos and we just seemed to gravitate towards those. In the end, we didn't bother with the originals and worked on the Bartok instead. I am really pleased how well it turned out."

The duo pieces derive from a commission that Bartok undertook to compose a series of duets for two violins as a resource for young music students. None of the original pieces were longer than three minutes and, in their composition, Bartok drew upon the Hungarian and Eastern European folk tradition that he loved so much. It is this that gives the music on Duos for Trios its character. There is a delicacy to these performances but also a robust quality as well. The analogy of a butterfly's wings seems appropriate here—fragile and limpid perhaps but capable too of thousands of miles of flight in migration.

The emphasis, as indeed with many of Speake's projects is on group interplay. There is no individual grandstanding here but rather a sense of intimate conversation, even if at times quite fractious. Oddly, as on "Walachian Song," an blues-like sensibility surfaces. Elsewhere, "Play Song" recalls simultaneously nursery rhymes and their often darker, adult subtexts—"Ring Ring O' Rosie" and its arguably pagan references, "Goosey-Goosey Gander" and hiding of Catholic priests during the English Protestant Reformation and so on.

In fact, the choice of pieces on Duos for Trios reflects the life of country folk, across many of the rural, agricultural areas of Europe—of Maypoles and folk dances (though quite what country folk would make of "Maypole Dance" is anyone's guess), hay-gathering, child-care (the lullaby "Cradle Song" and the plaintive "A Fairy Tale") and weddings (a solemn, almost mournful "Farewell to the Bride"). It is music that speaks of the fragile nature of existence, as well as its beauties, and which still touches upon real human emotions, albeit in a now less real world of experience.

To date, sadly, the trio has only existed in the studio. "We recorded over two days at RAM in a very nice concert room," Speake tells me. "We haven't played it live yet. Maybe that doesn't matter and it is just a recorded document of a moment. I would love to tour with all my projects but his brings me to the paradox and challenges of getting work for anything in this political climate. There is just no career structure in jazz."

We talk about the myriad dilemmas facing British jazz musicians—and no doubt their counterparts elsewhere. It is particularly ironic that, as a teacher at both RAM and Trinity Laban Conservatoire for many years, Speake is now competing with his ex-students for the same gigs at the provincial jazz clubs around the country. It is dispiriting to say the least. Yet, the body of work that Speake has created says much about his character and persistence. Perhaps that is a reflection of his belief that in changing the world, one must first change oneself.

Many of Speake's records contain sleevenotes featuring quotes from various thinkers and teachers, sometimes of a cultural nature, sometimes political and more often spiritual in some sense. I would, if pressed, describe him as a Tolstoian Anarchist. "Certain writings resonated with me at different times in my life," Speake says. "As a teenager and into my twenties, I read Marx, Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and others and this analysis of the world made sense for me at that time. In more recent years, although I still sympathise with this analysis of capitalism, I have been more engaged in self-development work from a spiritual, meditative and energetic side and this is deeper for me at this time. Rather than trying to change others, I feel it is more about changing myself and this will hopefully impact on the world and others. Music, for me, is a personal expression and an escape from the outer world of lies, consumerism, capitalist conditioning that we all face very day."

I would take issue with this last point and argue that music—at least that which is allowed to exist beyond the corrosive bottom line of bargain-basement capitalism—is more an escape to something more real and potentially more transformational and transcendent. Indeed, I would point out that Speake's own music is an excellent example of this in all its mystery and variety.

His musical journey has taken him into the heart of the piano-based jazz quartet with pianists like Bobo Stenson, Nikki Iles and Barry Green. He has played standards, often reimagining these as on the Basho CD My Ideal (2003) with The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, on Generations (Pumpkin, 2007)—a fine quartet with Barry Green, bassist Dave Green and American drummer Jeff Williams—and most affectionately and with a hint of irony at times on Exploring Standards with bassist Mick Hutton and drummer Tom Skinner (33Jazz, 2003). And any doubts that the boy can bop are instantly dispelled by a listen to the "Standards" albums and to Charlie Parker (Basho, 2005), Speake's tribute to the founding father and featuring the excellent Mike Outram on guitar.

But such records also sit comfortably alongside Speake's forays into Indian or North African music such as The Journey with sitarist Dharambir Singh and tabla player Sarvar Sabri (Black Box) and Fever Pitch (Village Life, 1998) with a percussion heavy group involving master drummer Paul Clarvis. In some ways, these have been side projects but they also inform and help keep Speake's improvisational practice fresh and vital. As he told me in 2010 in an interview for Jazzwise, referring to the Indian trio,

"It's fantastic and very different from the jazz thing. These guys don't really know anything about the jazz scene and, the way they play, we don't deal with harmony at all. It's a fantastic learning experience for me every time I play with them. What I do like about it is that maybe it's a bit more spiritual and meditative and it takes a long time to develop when we play, which is wonderful. It's a nice trio because we meet in the middle with all our knowledge and experience."

Of the other piano-sax quartets, Secret (Basho, 2001) with Iles and Canadian bassist Duncan Hopkins and fellow Cannuck Anthony Michelli on drums is quite lovely. The same group's Bloor Street (Edition, 2010) is even better, with the edgy bebop-inspiration of Iles' "Unit Six" and the angular, abstraction of Speake's "Make Some Memories" its stand-out tracks. The other piano quartet record, Change of Heart (ECM Records, 2006) represents a highpoint in Speake's career, as well as the fulfilment of an ambition to record with the great Paul Motian.

"It's probably difficult to put into words," Speake says, "but his approach resonates with me. I had heard him on recordings with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett and the Jarrett band with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden had a big impact on my approach. I heard influences of Ornette Coleman, the romanticism of Bill Evans, ostinato groove-type tunes in one tonality for a long time, rubato playing throughout, chord changes and a certain wildness in the band that I loved and still do. That band was big influence on me compositionally too, as are Paul's tunes."

And he continued,

"Paul's own music sounds so deep whether he plays standards on the On Broadway albums or his own tunes. He really does sound like an orchestra on the drums. He is pretty recognisable with one cymbal crash. Paul's time feel is unique too and seems linked to very early jazz drummers, as well as to all the other great drummers who came later. He has the history of jazz throughout his playing. It sounds wonderfully childlike with a simplicity that is profound, brave and rare. I feel very lucky to have played with him on several occasions and still listen to him a great deal. He was and will always be a mentor for me."

Sadly, the record with ECM proved a one-off but its mention brings us neatly to Unquiet Quiet with the Phelan Burgoyne Trio. I spoke with Burgoyne just after Xmas in my local caff in Framlingham, Suffolk and caught the group late February at Jazz East in Felixstowe, perhaps the only jazz club with a sea view. Burgoyne is an incredibly bright prospect, both as a drummer and in terms of the open-ended, shape-shifting compositions he writes. He contributed with an authority beyond his years to the Bartok record and it is very much to Speake's credit that he has given the guy the opportunity to make the album for his label. It will not surprise that Burgoyne is also a huge fan of Paul Motian.

For Burgoyne, Motian is a reference point both as a drummer and as a composer. I particularly like Burgoyne's description of Motian's drumming as "strong and honest but also hugely open and empathic." With considerable insight, he quotes bassist Larry Grenadier, who referred to Motian's playing as having "an ancient, pre-bebop, swing feel," adding that there was something "primal and child-like but also wise and rooted" about his approach, almost as if "he had never seen a drum kit before in his life."

Like Speake, Burgoyne is a remarkably thoughtful and highly perceptive musician. Speaking of how Motian's compositional style has affected him, he notes that each piece "has its own unique flavour and sound world" and one that "catapults the musicians into a special place," where they are immediately ready "to really improvise in the spirit of the song, rather than regurgitating licks." This is certainly reflected in Burgoyne's writing which seems to draw out his musicians' personalities and, at the same time, seems to reflect upon places and past experiences, like short stories, perhaps, with their own oblique narrative.

Their shared admiration for Motian and his trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell made the inclusion of Speake in Burgoyne's trio almost inevitable, though Speake is a very different player from Lovano, as Burgoyne points out,

"I met Martin in 2009, when he taught me as part of a National Youth Jazz collective summer school. Since then, we have played together very regularly. I asked him and Rob Luft to form my trio in 2014. I love his sound and his positive spirt and perhaps similarly to Motian -he has for me, the perfect combination of an open and rhapsodic approach paired with a deeply-rooted sense of tradition. But I want to stress that his role is very different in my trio than that of Lovano in Motian's group. With my band, it's more like a close-knit duo with Rob and me where we establish an environment for Martin to soar over."

Unquiet Quiet, its title a perfect description of the music, is quite short but provides for "an adventurous debut for a rising jazz talent," as John Fordham wrote in the Guardian recently. There is a wonderfully hypnogogic feel to "The Midnight Train to Malmø," coupled (paradoxically perhaps) with a strong sense of place. "Thomas," on the other hand, is suggestive of the influence of Bill Frisell, with a country-type of feel from the guitar of Rob Luft. "Purple Z" might be the best thing here. Its open-ended form showcases each member of the trio—and not least Burgoyne himself—while also revealing Burgoyne's clear intention that this should be very much a group music.

Phelan has plans to make this trio an ongoing relationship and hopefully one that will work in continental Europe. He spent last year in Basel and time in Copenhagen, so both and Speake are hoping that it may prove possible to take the group outside the UK. Such a step can turn an occasional project into a more regular working unit, allowing it the space to grow and develop artistically. The future for jazz and us all, contra Brexit, lies in more contact with our fellow Europeans not less.

Speake clearly enjoys working with Burgoyne's trio and has worked frequently with guitarists in his various previous projects. Indeed, he has said in the past that in some ways he prefers to work with guitarists,

"Generally, the guitar suits me better than piano," he told me in 2010, "Primarily because they can't play as many notes. Don't get me wrong -I love piano players and listen to people like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett all the time and I've got a good relationship with Nikki Iles. But, sonically, I prefer the guitar in the sense you can do a bit more with it. The piano is a bit more fixed."

At the same time, however, it is Speake's open-minded approach to music coupled with his ability to reconceptualise and position his own sound and vision in different contexts that makes his work in whatever setting so impressive. Guitar or piano, just bass and drums or sitar and tabla, his music always reflects a personalised aesthetic. I have written elsewhere for AAJ about Speake's freer work, for example with drummer Mark Sanders on The Quiet Mind, but there too it is the mark of Speake's art that he remains himself whatever the setting. And that dry, almost detached sound of his alto is one I find enormously attractive. It is emotional in its own quiet way but never emotes, a consequence perhaps of his classical training.

At one point, Speake had planned to establish just one regular working band with which to pursue all his musical interests. It never happened more because of the climate of economic and cultural austerity that dominates music and the arts in Britain than for want of trying. However, the freedom to work in so many different areas is compensation of sorts, as Speake notes, "I love so much music and I also I love new musical relationships, this can keep things fresh and helps me respond to different musicians."

The wider context, however, continually intrudes,

"The difficulty is that there doesn't seem to be a regular outlet for my music. Basically, I'm not fashionable, and promoters, agents and managers who could represent me and push my music to the wider audience that is out there, who could be receptive to my projects, seem not to be interested. High quality musical content is rarely the most important thing it seems, when it comes to promoters!"

Speake is far from alone in this regard. Funding and audience issues may not lead to conservatism in terms of the music that is presented in the UK and at its various festivals but it does lead to a degree of caution in terms of who gets to play. The bias towards name artists, most often from the USA, is all too apparent, as Speake points out,

"For instance, I never play at the London Jazz Festival. I'm certainly not the only British jazz musician ignored each year it takes place but I do get frustrated. The London Jazz Festival is the perfect time to promote British Jazz and the audience would go, as they do in their large numbers, because of the huge publicity that the festival ensures. Instead, we get lots of Americans probably taking up most of the budget that could be used to nurture British musicians of all generations."

I am tempted also to suggest that a certain ageism applies in respect of many British artists when it comes to high profile work but that is a whole other can of worms. As Speake said above, there is no career structure in British jazz. In fact, at times, it is hard to discern any structure at all.

It is to Speake's credit that he keeps on keeping on, albeit like many, forced back continually on his own resources. That the music he makes is of such a high standard and remains so, almost wilfully, adventurous, is a feat in itself.

The other recent release, Zephyr with violinist Faith Heleene Brackenbury is a case in point. Speake met Brackenbury some five years ago, when she began coming to him for jazz improvisation lessons. They kept in touch while the violinist was studying at the Birmingham Conservatoire and subsequently started playing together in duo, as Speake says, "seeing where it went with no stylistic bias." He also formed a band, Mafarowi named by Brackenbury, to play his Indian/Arabic inspired music with her on violin and voice, along with Rob Luft and Will Glaser on drums. "This is material from my Fever Pitch album of the late nineties, plus some other tunes," he explains.

And he continues,

"It seemed sensible to document the duo. Originally, it was going to be totally improvised but I then had the idea of using some structured tunes and there is one each end of the CD. Faith played me the folk tune "Down by the Salley Gardens," which I loved, so I encouraged her to sing it, which she does beautifully in addition to playing viola. The other piece "O Pastor Animarum" is the oldest piece I have played and was composed by Hildegard Von Bingen in the 12th century."

Brackenbury's background is in classical music, hot club jazz and folk and she brings all this to the music, along with many other reference points. She is as Speaks says, "a wonderful musician." In fact, of the three records, this is perhaps my personal favourite, not least due to my own affection for baroque and early music. Despite the fact, that much of the music is freely improvised and moves in and out of tonality, the feel (for me, at least) is not dissimilar to the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin—Bach clearly didn't know any free improvising saxophonists to call! The music is as light as air, with some beautifully rich textures in the combination of strings and woodwind. It is a triumph and the fact that the duo will continue as a working unit seems like a valuable new addition to the UK's very healthy jazz and improv scene.

It remains frustrating, however, how many gigs by British jazz musicians are for door money only. Jazz is a music made through cooperation not competition. Musically the British scene has never been healthier but the economic aspect is another matter altogether. As Speake says, "The world has certainly become more conservative or rather governments have and the legacy of Thatcher's philosophy permeates everywhere. There are lots of people who are not like this but they are not in power! I just continue working at my music and projects and releasing CDs with no budget to promote them in the hope that the world will find them one day. I feel my music is of value, not monetary value—though I would like to sell some CDs -but value as a positive force in the world and, if people give it a chance by listening to it, one that can help them access their inner world too."

To survive in that world requires positivity and a sense of higher values and principles, both of which Speake has in spades. His music is, after all, a highly articulate expression of those values. And as a teacher, it is important for him to impart that same sense of worth to his students, not by imposing his own ideas on them but by helping them explore their own vision and purpose in jazz.

"I love my teaching too, as mentor to young musicians," he says. "They are all special people and rare in what they have chosen to do, playing improvised music, one that is not in any way part of the regular media such as TV or newspapers. When we are in the college—lessons, playing and listening to music -everything else outside in the consumer world doesn't exist, when we are in those moments. I encourage them to be in the moment in the music and always remember when they find out they like a particular player or piece of music, it is telling them something about themselves."

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