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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."


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