by Ian Mann
April 24, 2018
An international collaboration which teams the British saxophonist with the American pianist Ethan Iverson plus the rhythm team of Fred Thomas (bass) and James Maddren (drums).
(Ubuntu Music – UBU0009)
Alto saxophonist, composer, band leader and educator Martin Speake is a leading figure on the UK jazz scene and a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages.
Since first coming to prominence during the ‘jazz boom’ of the late 1980s with the saxophone quartet Itchy Fingers Speake has very much ploughed his own jazz furrow, releasing eighteen albums as a leader across a variety of jazz styles ranging from bebop to world jazz to free improvisation.
Many of these recordings have appeared on the saxophonist’s own Pumpkin record label but arguably his best known release is “Change Of Heart” (2006) which appeared on the prestigious German label ECM and featured an international quartet featuring the esteemed Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and with the late, great Paul Motian at the drums.
Speake’s début album for the Ubuntu record label is also an international collaboration which teams the British saxophonist with the American pianist Ethan Iverson, the latter best known as a member of the hugely successful trio The Bad Plus. The quartet on this recording is completed by the British musicians Fred Thomas (bass) and James Maddren (drums), both former students of Speake’s at the Royal Academy of Music.
Speake’s association with Iverson goes back a long way. The two first met at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada in 1990 when Iverson was only seventeen. Both musicians were studying with Steve Coleman plus a number of other illustrious tutors including Rufus Reid, Kevin Eubanks, Stanley Cowell and Kenny Wheeler. Speake was impressed by Iverson’s maturity as an improviser, even at that age, and the pair maintained contact for a number of years.
In 2002 Iverson was working in London with the Mark Morris Dance Company and met up with Speake to play a few tunes. This re-union resulted in a duo tour of the UK and an album recording, “My Ideal”, which featured the pair improvising around a series of well known jazz ballads.
Shortly after this The Bad Plus took off in a big way and Iverson became something of a superstar, in jazz terms at least. Having recently left that band after nearly twenty years the pianist now has more time to play with others, with Speake swift to invite him to play on this latest quartet recording.
“Intention” takes its title from the book “The Power of Intention; Learning to Co-Create Your World Your Way” by the American author and motivational speaker Wayne W. Dyer (1940 – 2015). The material includes nine original Speake compositions, some of which have appeared on previous albums, plus arrangements of the jazz standard “Dancing In The Dark” and the Charlie Parker tune “Charlie’s Wig”. Of the pieces he has previously recorded Speake observes; “ It is fascinating to see how my approach has developed since those albums and how the musicians on ‘Intention’ interpret these pieces.”
The album commences in an unexpectedly melancholy fashion with “Becky”, a musical depiction of the sadness of an estranged father. The crystalline sound of Iverson’s piano is juxtaposed against Maddren’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers and the grainy sound of Thomas’ bowed bass. Speake’s dryly eloquent alto enters later and there’s a kind of chilly beauty about what, in truth, is a rather abstract piece, informed by Colemans Steve and Ornette. There is much to admire here but it does seem to be a rather perverse choice as an album opener. One suspects that it would have been better scheduled later in the running order.
The following “Twister” is far more lively and attention grabbing. This piece is based on a groove inspired by John Scofield and Eddie Harris, with Scofield in turn being influenced by The Beatles. Speake’s alto takes flight above the buoyant grooves generated by Iverson, Thomas and the ebullient Maddren, the saxophonist sometimes sounding like a more reserved David Sanborn. He’s followed by Iverson whose increasingly percussive solo is succinct and thoughtfully constructed.
“Magic Show” originally appeared on “Trust”, Speake’s second solo album and combines the influence of Ornette Coleman with the kind of English whimsy popularised by Loose Tubes and their successors. During its brief duration the performance includes an engaging collective theme statement plus absorbing dialogues between saxophone and piano followed by bass and drums.
From Speake’s 1992 début “In Our Time” the aptly named “Spring Dance” is a sprightly piece that again reveals the influence of Ornette Coleman. Speake’s alto is lithe, pure toned and joyous while Iverson delivers a dazzling solo, clearly relishing the opportunity to get back to basics. Thomas and Maddren both make powerful and substantial contributions and each is awarded with a brief cameo during the course of the tune.
From “Trust” “The Heron” commences with a passage of limpidly lyrical solo piano from Iverson. The pianist is later joined by the slightly plaintive tone of Speake’s alto, sometimes sounding almost flute like. Thomas and Maddren, the latter wielding brushes offer subtle and sympathetic support.
“Dancing In The Dark”, written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz continues the lyrical mood and is a delightful ballad performance led by Speake’s tender, effortlessly fluent alto, shadowed by Iverson’s apposite chording and Maddren’s deft brush work. Iverson’s piano solo is simultaneously thoughtful, slightly quirky and thoroughly engaging.
Parker’s “Charlie’s Wig” raises the energy levels again as the quartet update Bird through the prism of Ornette Coleman for the 21st century. Speake is at his most declamatory on alto, Iverson is feverishly inventive at the piano while Thomas and Maddren negotiate the rhythmic demands of the piece with aplomb. Speake has also played in Thomas’ Bach inspired Polyphonic Jazz Band and has declared “He is my teacher now!”.
“Blackwell” is dedicated to Ornette’s one time drummer, the late great Ed Blackwell (1929-92). Speake’s tribute first appeared on “In Our Time” and was written after the saxophonist learned of Blackwell’s death. At that time he said of Blackwell “He was from New Orleans but had a strong African influence in his playing”. That African feel is present throughout this celebratory piece which is driven by Thomas’ muscular bass groove and features the nimble stick work of Maddren as he channels the spirit of Blackwell. Meanwhile Speake and Blackwell dovetail effectively but it’s the extended dialogue between Thomas and Maddren that really catches the ear.
I’m not sure of the significance behind the title of “June 2nd” but it’s an evocative piece, similar in feel to the opener “Becky”. Thomas’ unaccompanied bass ushers in the music, joined first by Maddren’s brushed drums and then by Speake’s wispy alto sax melody, this shadowed by Iverson’s piano. Speake emerges as the featured soloist, probing deeply against a backdrop of rolling piano chords and skittering drums on one of the album’s more abstract pieces.
From “In Our Time” Speake’s composition “Hidden Vision” has “a melody on a pentatonic scale which gives the piece a bright and open sound”. There’s a Loose Tubes-ish whimsicality about it that still sounds good all these years on and the infectious melody provides the jumping off point for exuberant and engaging solos from both Speake and Iverson.
From the same album comes the title track which Speake described in 1992 as “a composition in three parts”. Now as then the piece closes the album. Something of the structure remains with a rubato opening group statement followed by Speake soloing above Maddren’s mallet driven drum groove. The closing passage is a ballad section featuring the flowing piano of Iverson.
I’ve owned a copy of “In Out Time” for over twenty years and it is indeed interesting to compare the 1992 versions of some of these tunes with their 2018 versions. The current version of “Intention” is greatly truncated and the individual sections less clearly delineated. Inevitably the newer version sounds very different as the 1992 album featured Speake alongside former Loose Tubes guitarist John Parricelli with Steve Watts and Steve Arguelles filling the bass and drum chairs respectively. Despite the different instrumentation the other tunes, “Hidden Vision”, “Blackwell” and “Spring Dance” remain eminently recognisable and it says much for the strength and adaptability of Speake’s writing that these compositions remain convincing in both formats, more than a quarter of a century apart.
The quartet of Speake, Iverson, Thomas and Maddren are currently touring the UK with the presence of the former Bad Plus pianist certain to be a huge draw. It has been suggested by some of the commentators that the “Intention” studio recording is a little too “polite”, which is probably a valid point. One suspects that in the crucible of the live environment sparks may begin to fly a little more as the musicians, and particularly Iverson, take the opportunity to stretch out further.
Catch the band at one of their remaining dates as listed below;
24/4 London, Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho
25/4 London, Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho
26/4 Bristol, St George’s
27/4 Reading, Progress Theatre
29/4 Manchester, Cinnamon Club
1/5 Hastings, East Hastings Sea Angling Association
3/5 Cambridge, Hidden Rooms
4/5 Poole, The Lighthouse
More information at;
Martin Speake: https://www.martinspeake.com/
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