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Martin Speake: The Thinking Fan's Saxophonist

Duncan Heining By

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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 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.
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