by Ian Mann
February 09, 2017
Challenging, yet distinctive and accessible Inner Space deliver consistently inventive and frequently thrilling music.
Loz Speyer’s Inner Space
“Life On The Edge”
(Leo Records CD LR 782)
I first became aware of the music of London based trumpeter and composer Loz Speyer back in 1999 when his quartet featuring guitarist Andy Jones, bassist Richard Jeffries and drummer Tony Bianco played on an open air bandstand at the inaugural Leamington Spa Jazz Festival. I was impressed and bought a copy of their then latest album “Two Kinds Of Blue” (33 Records), I guess you don’t need me to tell you who one of the prime influences was.
Fast forward ten years and I reviewed for this site the excellent album “Five Animal Dances” recorded by Speyer’s Inner Space Music, a more improvisatory group featuring Chris Biscoe (reeds), Julie Walkington (bass) and the great Seb Rochford (drums).
These two records identified Speyer as an intelligent, highly versatile musician, an opinion that was reinforced in 2011 with the release of “Crossing The Line”, an innovative and highly personalised examination of the Afro-Cuban musical tradition by another Speyer group, the still ongoing Time Zone, featuring the London based musicians Martin Hathaway (alto sax, bass clarinet), Stefano Kalonaris (guitar and tres), Davide Mantovani (double bass), Simon Pearson (drums) and Maurizio Ravalico (congas and percussion).
Speyer has rather dropped off my radar in recent years so it’s good to him returning with Inner Space, a quintet that can be viewed as a direct descendant of Inner Space Music. Speyer remains in place playing trumpet and flugel alongside Biscoe’s alto sax and alto clarinet. But there’s now a third front line voice with Rachel Musson doubling on tenor and soprano saxophones and a brand new rhythm section featuring Olie Brice on double bass and Gary Willcox at the drums, the latter succeeding Simon Roth and the late Graham Fox in the drum chair.
The album title refers to the margin or hinterland between composition and improvisation, a territory that is well known to all of the members of this quintet. Speyer’s music also draws on overlapping areas of the jazz tradition from New Orleans through bebop to free jazz. Among the great jazz artists referenced as influences by Speyer are Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacey, traces of whom can all be detected in Inner Space’s music. Meanwhile Steve Day’s liner notes reference the Dewey Redman Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (particularly with reference to the three horn front line) plus Biscoe’s experiences with bands led by pianist/composers Chris McGregor and Mike Westbrook.
Biscoe has also led his own band Profiles of Mingus and it is perhaps the ghosts of Mingus and Coleman that can most readily be detected in Inner Space’s music. “Life On The Edge” features eleven new Speyer compositions, the majority clocking in at around the five or six minute mark, thereby ensuring that no one piece outstays its welcome.
Brice’s muscular bass grooves introduce opening piece “The Long Road” and he locks in with Willcox’s martial style drumming to provide the impetus for the three horns to combine and dovetail in thrilling fashion, sometimes combining, sometimes playing off each other, always busy, always inventing, always reacting and interacting. The piece is a kind of skewed march, filtered through Speyer via Mingus.
“Rocket Science” does more to break the group down into its component parts with Speyer soloing over the propulsive but fluid rhythms laid down by Brice and Willcox. It’s an outing that amply demonstrates his formidable trumpet technique. Biscoe and Musson also feature strongly but again there are also moments of inspired group dialogue, particularly between the two reeds on a piece exhibiting the influence of both bebop and Ornette Coleman.
“Space Music”, the title perhaps a celebration of the band, wades more deeply into free jazz waters as the horns probe interestingly around the loosely structured rhythms with Willcox’s drums periodically coming to the fore.
“From A to B to Infinity” is more direct with the three horns launching themselves into the boppish theme before diving off into their individual solos with both Biscoe and Musson stretching out at length before eventually handing over to Speyer. Brice and Willcox provide a busy, fluid support that positively bristles with energy and brings out the best in the soloists.
The cleverly titled “Fr-agile” is gentler, but no less satisfying as the horns combine on the theme but allow plenty of room for Brice’s always engaging solo bass extemporisations.
“Unfold Enfold” features a lively Coleman-esque theme followed by concise, incisive solos from Biscoe, Speyer and Musson as Brice and Willcox offer typically sure footed rhythmic encouragement. The Swansea born Musson, once the leader of her own group Skein and now an increasingly in demand player on the London jazz and improv scene, is particularly impressive in terms of both power and invention.
At a little over eight minutes “Thick and Thin” is the lengthiest track on the album and features the horns playing the theme in unison, creating an impressively big, quasi-orchestral sound in the process – one of the “little big band refrains” of which Day speaks. Subsequently Biscoe, Speyer and Musson excel individually with fluent, expansive, individual solos as does the excellent Brice on double bass. A master of the disputed territory between composition and improvisation Brice is a perfect fit for this band and he and Willcox make a terrific team - supportive, propulsive and consistently inventive they complement the horn players brilliantly.
The atmospheric “Deep Sea Spirit” is more abstract and freely structured and features Brice on bowed bass.
With its rousing theme and buoyant rhythms “Snakes And Ladders” is rather more straightforward by comparison. The horns make a powerful collective opening statement before breaking down into smaller units for individual solos and three way discussions with Brice and Willcox also stepping briefly into the limelight with their bass and drum dialogues.
As its title might suggest “Contretemps” also features some fiery group interplay including some bright and brassy horn exchanges, garrulous solo statements and some fluidly muscular bass and drum features.
The closing “Brewglass” shows the group in a gentler light, a kind of abstract ballad featuring Willcox on brushes, Speyer on flugel and Biscoe on clarinet. Brice demonstrates his melodic skills as a bass soloist. There’s a comforting warmth about this piece which makes it an ideal way to conclude an album that is largely dynamic, energetic and occasionally challenging.
Inner Space’s chordless line up doesn’t make their music easy to describe but it does allow for a good deal of improvisational freedom and the group members seem to revel in this. The album was recorded in December 2015 in the wake of a ten date UK tour and one gets the feeling that the band were at a creative peak at the time of recording and thoroughly conversant with Speyer’s material. There’s that balance between structure and freedom that distinguishes all the best jazz and despite some fine individual moments the impression remains that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The musicians seem fully attuned to one another’s sensibilities and the playing is frequently inspired and often highly exciting with the energy levels generally high throughout. Challenging, yet distinctive and accessible Inner Space deliver consistently inventive and frequently thrilling music.
Reviews of “Life On The Edge” have reflected on Speyer as an unsung hero of the British jazz scene. Let’s hope this excellent album brings him and his band mates some well deserved attention and that the group might tour again in 2017.
In the meantime Loz Speyer has the following dates scheduled;
Tue 21 Feb: Loz Speyer Quartet +DJ E-Man - Ridley Road Market Bar, 49 Ridley Rd, E8 2NP
Fri 7 Apr: Inner Space - Fire Music at The Old Fire Station, Hadleigh, Essex, SS7 2PA
Wed 10 May: Inner Space - Way Out West at the Bull’s Head, 373 Lonsdale Rd, Barnes, London SW13 9PY
Thu 18 May: Time Zone - at Karamel, Chocolate Factory 2, Coburg Road, London N22 6UJ
Further information at http://www.lozspeyer.com