by Ian Mann
April 02, 2020
A series of intimate, intelligent and wide ranging musical conversations. A highly satisfying album that engages the attention of the listener despite the apparent sparseness of the instrumentation.
Martin Speake & Faith Brackenbury
(Pumpkin Records 008)
Martin Speake – alto saxophone
Faith Brackenbury – violin, viola, voice
I’m indebted to Faith Brackenbury for sending me this intriguing recording, originally released in 2018 on Martin Speake’s own Pumpkin record label.
On the face of it Speake and Brackenbury appear to come from different musical traditions, the saxophonist from jazz and the string player and singer from folk and classical music.
Yet with Zephyr, now a band name as well as an album title, they find common ground in a programme consisting of nine spontaneous improvisations plus the two composed pieces that bookend the album.
The music was recorded in February 2016 at St. Mark’s Church in London by engineer Oliver Glynn and with Speake and Brackenbury acting as co-producers.
The elaborate album packaging features original artwork by the multi-talented Brackenbury alongside thought provoking quotations from a variety of creative figures, these including politicians, musicians, artists, poets and philosophers – the list includes Nelson Mandela, Charlie Parker, Pablo Picasso, Rumi and Ted Hughes.
Speake and Brackenbury also provide their own liner notes, which offer a degree of insight into the music.
It’s not made completely clear how Speake and Brackenbury came to meet. He lives in London, she some two hundred miles away in rural Shropshire. I’d postulate that it was during the period when Brackenbury was studying jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire, and that Speake was a visiting tutor. In any event a fertile musical relationship has been established and Speake was part of a stellar band of jazz musicians who appeared on Brackenbury’s excellent 2019 EP “KnifeAngel”. Review here;
Alto saxophone and violin/viola represents an unusual, possibly unique, instrumental combination. Nevertheless Speake and Brackenbury combine very effectively, as evidenced by the opening “O Pastor Animarum”, written by the 12th century composer and polymath Hildegard von Bingen. The duo’s version of the piece features them working in tandem but also includes extended solo improvisations from both musicians. The mood of the piece is suitably reverential, perhaps reflecting the fact that the music was recorded in a church. Speake says of von Bingen’s compositions; “her music consists of single line melodies, perfect to improvise on! I have plans to use more of her compositions in the future”.
The title track, “Zephyr”, is more obviously improvised but continues in the same hushed and reverential style that characterised the opener, with Speake and Brackenbury gently and tentatively exchanging ideas in an improvised performance of great subtlety. One can almost hear them thinking as they quietly sound each other out. Brackenbury bows with great delicacy, the sounds that she produces sometimes seeming to imitate the timbres of a church organ.
The appropriately named “Entangled” is more spiky with Speake blowing harder and Brackenbury bowing more vigorously. Nevertheless there are still moments of beauty here, plus real musical intelligence and empathy in these spirited exchanges.
“The Other Hoedown” introduces elements from Brackenbury’s folk background and finds Speake responding to the folk like melodies she initiates with aplomb, whilst also finding plenty to say on his own account. Brackenbury describes improvising with Speake as being “exciting, challenging and joyous!”, and something of those qualities can be heard here.
Unaccompanied, pure toned alto saxophone introduces “Finding You” with Speake sketching a melody to which Brackenbury responds. Further melodic solo exchanges follow, the spaces between them growing shorter until the two musicians are trading ideas together, at much closer quarters. From separate beginnings this piece becomes a genuine meeting of musical minds.
Solo sax also introduces “Beautiful Night Raga”, which follows a broadly similar trajectory to the previous item. The Indian elements that inform the piece are not signposted too obviously and overall this is another compelling and convincing duo performance.
“Droned Out” seems to draw less on the Indian tradition (as its title might suggest) than on Celtic folk music. Initially there’s something of the feel of a Celtic air about it, albeit in an improvised context, with the two musicians subsequently sparring around the melodies in increasingly animated fashion.
Named after a type of raga “Yagapriya” re-introduces the Indian element during the course of an intense dialogue that finds Brackenbury’s strings skirting around, and dovetailing with, Speake’s powerful and incisive alto sax proclamations.
As befits its title “Land Of Beauty” brings a more pastoral air to the proceedings with the two instrumentalists enjoying a more relaxed, but no less skilled, musical dialogue.
The penultimate track, and final improvisation, is “She and He”, which commences with a dramatic passage of solo bowing from Brackenbury that references both the classical and folk traditions. Brackenbury has also played violin with a number of gypsy jazz combos in the Shropshire area, although that aspect of her playing isn’t particularly obvious on this CD. Speake follows with a shorter improvised passage of lone alto sax. These back to back solo improvisations are the perfect encapsulation of the track title.
Concluding the album is the second composed piece, an arrangement by the duo of the folk song “Down By The Salley Gardens”, based on a poem by W.B.Yeats and with music by Herbert Hughes. Back home in Shropshire Brackenbury performs regularly in a folk duo with multi-instrumentalist John Neilson, playing mainly original instrumental material.
Brackenbury also sings, a side of her talent that she has only recently re-introduced to public performance. It was she who brought the Yeats song to this session with Martin Speake.
An extended instrumental introduction features the pair improvising around the melody, with each taking turns to assume the lead. This eventually leads to Brackenbury’s vocal rendition of the song,
her voice shadowed at first by Speake’s alto, but concluding the performance entirely unaccompanied. Her voice sounds sweet, but fragile and vulnerable, with Speake describing this aspect of her performance as “very moving”.
With its unusual instrumental line up and its embrace of a variety of musical styles - jazz, folk, classical, Indian - “Zephyr” is a fascinating album. It sounds very different to the usual ‘free jazz’ or ‘improv’ recording, despite the fact that the majority of its pieces are fully improvised.
Speake has worked in freely improvised contexts before, such as his 2001 duo album “Spark” with drummer / percussionist Mark Sanders, but he always retains an essential sense of melody, and this recording is no exception.
The nine improvisations on “Zephyr” are concise and succinct, with no single episode outstaying its welcome. They also encompass a rich variety of musical styles, with each piece easily distinguishable from the others, thereby maintaining the listener’s attention.
The rapport between Speake and Brackenbury is apparent from the outset and there is always the sense that each is listening to, and responding to, the others’ playing. There is no sense of competition or conflict, no ‘egos at work’ here. The result is a highly satisfying album that engages the attention of the listener despite the apparent sparseness of the instrumentation.
A word too for a production that fully captures all the subtleties and nuances of these intimate, intelligent and wide ranging musical conversations.
Zephyr can be purchased from;
From Faith Brackenbury via email;
Thank you so much for writing us a wonderful review- you go into such depth of aural observation, and it feels that you notice every nuance. Your efforts are indeed very appreciated, I know that from other musicians too.
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