Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

June 18, 2024


The aptly named “Tendrils” is an intelligent and often beautiful album that showcases the almost telepathic rapport between Speake and Cawley.

Martin Speake & Alyson Cawley


(Self Released, Pumpkin Records)

Martin Speake – alto saxophone, Alyson Cawley – tenor saxophone

Released on June 2nd 2024 “Tendrils” is a new release from the saxophone duo of Martin Speake (alto) and Alyson Cawley (tenor).

Speake first came to prominence as a member of the Itchy Fingers saxophone quartet during the UK “jazz boom” of the 1980s. He has been a solo artist since 1988 and has amassed an impressively diverse catalogue of recordings, many of them released on his own Pumpkin record label, which he established in 2007. A naturally inquisitive musician his oeuvre ranges through explorations of jazz standards, free improvisation and various styles of ‘world jazz’.

As leader or co-leader Speake has released twenty four recordings and there isn’t really sufficient space or time for me to go into all of them here. Particularly notable international collaborations have featured his playing in the company of pianists Ethan Iverson and Bobo Stenson and drummers Paul Motian and Jeff Williams. A more comprehensive biography and discography can be found by visiting Speake’s website

Speake has recorded frequently in a duo format and the albums “Spark” (2001), a collaboration with drummer / percussionist Mark Sanders, and “Zephyr” (2018), recorded with violinist / violist / vocalist Faith Brackenbury are both reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann web pages.

Other duo collaborations have featured Speake’s playing in the company of pianists Alex Maguire, Liam Noble, Alcyona Mick and Douglas Finch, guitarists Colin Oxley and Samo Salamon and drummer Jeff Williams. It his intention that “Tendrils” will be followed by three other duo recordings, but details of these are yet to be made public.

The Jazzmann archives include a number of reviews of other recordings and live performances featuring Martin Speake, the most recent of these being an exceptional show from a quartet featuring guitarist Mike Outram, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Tristan Maillot at The Hive in Shrewsbury in November 2023, review here;

Although I’m fairly familiar with Speake’s music I have to admit to knowing considerably less about Alyson Cawley, who spent several years away from the music scene raising a family.

Once the lead tenor saxophonist with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) Cawley studied at Leeds College of Music and at the Guildhall in London. She names Charlie Parker, Warne Marsh, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Julius Hemphill and John Coltrane as her main saxophone influences and as a composer cites the inspiration of Hemphill and of pianists Lennie Tristano and Keith Jarrett.

During the 1990s she toured with ‘Acid Jazz’ acts The Herbaliser, James Taylor Quartet (JTQ) and Incognito.

In a more straight-ahead jazz context she co-led a quintet with alto saxophonist Allison Neale and also performed with the Alan Barnes Nonet and the BBC Big Band.

Since returning to the scene she co-leads a straight ahead quartet with Colin Oxley and also appears on a regular basis with the ‪Ronnie Scott‬ Big Band, Echoes of Ellington Orchestra, ‪Benny Goodman ‬Orchestra, Len Phillips Orchestra and the London Jazz Orchestra.

Cawley recently featured on the album “Donna’s Secret”, recorded by Issie Barratt’s all female dectet Interchange.

Speake and Cawley have enjoyed a long musical association since first meeting as tutors at Glamorgan Summer School in 1996. However it wasn’t until 2017 that they began to work together on a regular basis and she has since become an important player in several of Speake’s projects including In All Languages, a quartet dedicated to playing the music of Ornette Coleman. She has also been involved with Speake projects based around the music of Charlie Parker and of Lennie Tristano.

Cawley has also been a member of Speake’s Charukesi   group, a quartet whose original music reflects Speake’s interest in ‘world music’ forms including Indian, African and Middle Eastern influences. I recall enjoying a live performance by Charukesi, with Speake and Cawley joined by guitarist Rob Luft and drummer Will Glaser, in the foyer at Cadogan Hall as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival.

As an album “Tendrils” is well named, with the saxophone lines of Speake and Cawley sinuously twining around one another. The twelve track programme features four compositions by Cawley, three by Speake and three jointly credited spontaneous improvisations.

The duo’s shared love of the music of Ornette Coleman is expressed via the inclusion of the Coleman composition “Good Old Days”, which actually opens the album. Written in the blues form it represents a rousing beginning with the two saxes working both in tandem and in counterpoint.

Cawley’s title track is more reflective with the horns gently intertwining around each other. As I said “Tendrils” is a fitting title.

Jointly credited to Cawley and Speake “Charukesi” is named for the band that they both play in. The title is also the name of an Indian raga and this forms the basis for the duo’s improvisations, these ranging from the reflective and thoughtful to something more spirited and strident, but always tuneful and with the raga at its core.

Speake’s composition “June 2nd” is named for the date that the pair first played together in a duo format in 2017. As alluded to previously it is then only fitting that the duo’s debut album should have been released on June 2nd 2024. Again the saxes work both in tandem and in counterpoint on a piece with a predominately pastoral and very English feel.

The jointly credited “Squirrels” is a spontaneous improvisation, created in the moment and without resource to any written content. It still sounds thoroughly cogent and could readily be perceived as a fully written piece.

Cawley’s “In Denial” is written in the style of a conventional swing tune and is influenced by the writing of Lennie Tristano. The chord sequence is based on that of the jazz standard “Foolin’ Myself” and the phrasing of the melody is based on a recorded version by Billie Holiday. It’s the most ‘conventional’ item on the recording and again features the saxes working both in unison and contrapuntally.

“Ramamani” is Speake’s dedication to the Indian vocalist,  composer and improviser of the same name, who has been a major influence on Speake’s own work in this particular musical area. It’s a delicate and thoughtful homage and constitutes one of the album’s most openly beautiful performances.

“Cawley’s composition “Letting Go” is inspired by the music of pianist and composer Keith Jarrett and places a strong emphasis on melody. Again, it’s a particularly beautiful duo performance.

The jointly credited “Moonlight” is an improvisation “lovingly” based on the jazz standard “Moonlight in Vermont”. It’s another example of an improvisation that sounds as if it could have been written and the duo’s obvious love of, and respect for, their source material shines through.

Also jointly credited “Yagapriya” is a second piece to draw inspiration from the work of Ramamani and features the duo improvising around an Indian mode. Again that love and respect for the source material communicates itself to the listener.

Cawley’s composition “Guerneka” takes its title from a phrase in the Basque language that translates as “we continuously germinate”, a reference to the trees of the area continually re-generating themselves via their own acorns. A folk like melody is underscored by a saxophonic drone, which eventually subsides as the twin saxes intertwine, tangling like the roots and branches of a tree. Again there’s a pastoral quality about the writing on one of the album’s most evocative and atmospheric pieces.

The album concludes with “Becky”, a Speake composition dedicated to his daughter. It’s a wistful and tender piece that ends the album on a serene and beautiful note.

The aptly named “Tendrils” is an intelligent and often beautiful album that showcases the almost telepathic rapport between Speake and Cawley. It’s a recording that eschews histrionics and extended techniques and focusses on the interplay between the alto and tenor saxes. Both players adopt an ego-less approach and serve the music faithfully,  but even though there’s no grandstanding the quality of the playing is never in question.

Some listeners may regard a whole album of saxophone duets as representing something of a challenge but “Tendrils” is actually remarkably accessible and any of the individual tracks would sound thoroughly at home on such BBC Radio 3 programmes as Late Junction, Night Tracks or Unclassified.

Speake has yet to make the album available on such platforms as Bandcamp or Spotify and would like listeners to purchase the album directly from himself or Cawley.  I’m grateful to Martin for supplying me with a CD copy of the album for review purposes. The cover image is a painting by Alyson Cawley, who also coined the album title.

Potential purchasers can contact Speake and Cawley directly via email;

Contact Alyson .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Contact Martin .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
or via

A video about the making of the “Tendrils” album can be viewed here;


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