by Ian Mann
November 13, 2023
Speake's tunes are intelligent, sometimes quirky and place a strong emphasis on melody. His themes are excellent vehicles for improvisers, as this exceptional quartet demonstrated.
Martin Speake Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 11/11/2023
Martin Speake – alto saxophone, Mike Outram – guitar, Calum Gourlay – double bass, Tristan Maillot – drums
Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s November event drew a pleasingly substantial, and very supportive, audience to The Hive for this visit by alto saxophonist and composer Martin Speake and his quartet.
It was a gig that was originally scheduled to have taken place in January 2023 but which had been postponed as Martin was still recovering from some pretty serious dental work and wasn’t able to play at that time. Dental problems are a bit of a scourge for saxophonists, with John Coltrane perhaps the most famous example.
I’m glad to say that Martin is now fully recovered, and on the evidence of tonight’s performance playing better than ever.
Speake first came to prominence as a member of the Itchy Fingers saxophone quartet during the UK “jazz boom” of the 1980’s. 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 http://www.martinspeake.com
The seeds for this current quartet probably lie with “Always A First Time”, a 2012 double set recorded ‘live in the studio’ with a trio featuring Mike Outram on guitar and Jeff Williams at the drums. Together the three explore a mix of Speake compositions and jazz standards, but with the primary emphasis on the original material and with collective improvisation playing a substantial part in the creative process. With the addition of bassist Calum Gourlay and with Tristan Maillot replacing Williams at the drums this was very much the same approach that the quartet adopted this evening.
Having said that Speake has always had a fondness for sax / guitar quartets and as far back as 1994 released the album “In Our Time”, an excellent collection of Speake originals recorded by a quartet featuring guitarist John Parricelli, bassist Steve Watts and drummer Steve Arguelles. He was to dip briefly into that album’s repertoire tonight.
Many of Speake’s compositions are dedicated to people, be they family members or other musicians who have inspired him. Tonight’s performance began with “Beauty and Mystery”, dedicated to the late, great American saxophonist Dewey Redman (1931-2006). This was ushered in by the trio of guitar, bass and drums, with Speake initially playing off mic before stepping forward to deliver the theme and take the first solo. He is a fluent and thoughtful soloist with a pure, well defined tone, whose playing has been compared to that of Lee Konitz, an acknowledged influence. Speak handed over to the agile fingered Outram, an inventive and versatile guitarist whose playing has graced a variety of jazz settings, from small group to big band. Outram’s playing also embraces the influence of rock and tonight he made judicious use of a range of effects pedals. This Redman inspired opener got things off to a rousing start and at times sounded positively ‘Coleman-esque’, which was suitably fitting considering Redman’s lengthy association with Ornette Coleman.
The source of Speake’s second dedication was closer to home, with “Betty”, a hauntingly beautiful ballad dedicated to the memory of the composer’s late mother. An atmospheric intro featured the sounds of Maillot’s brushes and mallets on cymbals and the semi-ambient textures generated by Outram’s array of pedals, this helping to form the backdrop for Speake’s gently emotive sax soloing.
The next piece was dedicated to Bill, a repairer of saxophones. It was introduced by the trio of guitar, bass and drums, with Maillot wielding brushes. The feel of this piece was more relaxed, with Speake stating the theme on alto before handing over to the impressive Gourlay for a melodic double bass solo that also exhibited a great dexterity. Speake then stretched out more expansively and forcefully on alto as Maillot switched to sticks. Outram subsequently took over on guitar as the piece drew towards its close.
The last of four pieces all beginning with the letter ‘B’ was “Bouncy”, titled solely for the feel of the music. This aptly named piece commenced with a collective theme statement followed by a drum solo from the impressive Tristan Maillot. By coincidence tonight was the second time I’d seen Maillot perform live in a little over a week. On Friday 3rd November 2023 he’d played with the Jim Mullen Trio at Kidderminster Jazz Club, a performance also reviewed elsewhere on this site. His playing was right on the money on both occasions, although somewhat different stylistically, the music of the Mullen trio being standards based and generally more orthodox. Maillot’s inventive drum feature was followed by solos from Speake and Outram, and it has to be said that there was something of a conventional jazz feel here with Gourlay playing walking bass lines.
The first standard of the night was a Speake arrangement of “Dancing In The Dark” that imparted the piece with a suitably nocturnal quality. It was ushered in by Gourlay’s unaccompanied bass, joined in duet by the leader’s alto. Gourlay’s bass motif and Speake’s sax melody helped to set the course for the piece, with Outram adding shadowy guitar chords and Maillot adding a brushed drum commentary. With the scene set discursive solos came from Speake and Outram, before the saxophonist returned to restate the theme.
A lengthy first set concluded with “Toxicology”, a Speake original based on the chords of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and with a title reminiscent of a Charlie Parker tune. This was an appropriately bebop style offering with a complex ‘head’ that fuelled a lively guitar solo from Outram, propelled by Gourlay’s rapid bass walk and Maillot’s vigorously brushed drums. Included was a substantial quote from Ornette Coleman’s “Round Trip / Broadway Blues”. Speake subsequently stretched out on alto, followed by Gourlay on double bass. Finally there was a series of trades with drummer Maillot as an excellent first set ended on an energetic note.
Set two commenced with the previously alluded to visit to the repertoire of the “In Our Time” album and the Speake composition “Hidden Vision”, the title a “reference to London’s missing skyline”. It’s a tune that obviously remains one of Speake’s favourites, as does the album itself, with several of the pieces from that disc being re-imagined on “Intention”, Speake’s 2018 album with pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Fred Thomas and drummer James Maddren. Speake has described “Hidden Vision” as having “a melody on a pentatonic scale in the key of E, which gives the piece a bright and open sound”. It certainly represented a spirited opening to the second half, with solos coming from the composer on alto and Outram on guitar.
Among those present in the audience were violinist Faith Brackenbury and drummer Tony Bianco. Brackenbury and Speake released the duo album “Zephyr” in 2020, a recording that is reviewed elsewhere on this site. The duo of Brackenbury and Bianco have since released the album “Wayward Mystic”, a series of improvisations inspired by the music of Hildegard von Bingen. This 2022 recording is also reviewed elsewhere on this site.
It must have been Brackenbury’s presence that inspired Speake to include his own composition “Hildegard” in the set list. I, for one, was glad that he did. This was a hauntingly beautiful performance with an extended introduction that included the sounds of Outram’s ambient guitar atmospherics, Maillot’s mallet rumbles, Gourlay’s strummed bass. From this emerged unison alto sax/ guitar melody lines that sounded like some sort of chorale, this followed by an engaging sax and drum dialogue underscored by the haunting sounds of guitar soundwashes and bowed bass. The piece then closed with a ‘free jazz’ section that embraced a wilful dissonance and which demonstrated the more experimental and avant garde side of Speake’s playing. Taken as a whole the piece was quite stunning.
“Conspiracy Observer” was dedicated to Speake’s fellow saxophonist Evan Parker, whose controversial opinions about the pandemic raised quite a few eyebrows in the jazz community and beyond. Perhaps surprisingly the piece embraced more of a conventional jazz feel and included an expansive Speake solo in the saxophone trio format as Outram temporarily stood aside. The piece was also notable for a Gourlay solo that could perhaps be better described as a bass / drum dialogue.
In 2022 Speake toured the UK with an international quartet featuring the German born, London based pianist, composer and educator Hans Koller, plus the Danish rhythm pairing of bassist Anders Christensen and drummer Anders Mogensen. I recall seeing them at at the sadly now defunct Chapel Arts in Cheltenham. The quartet went under the collective moniker Universal Connection and Speake has written a tune with the same name in honour of the band. An attractive melodic theme led to a solo from Outram that saw the guitarist making intelligent and effective use of his array of pedals. He was followed by the composer with a typically fluent alto solo.
Unaccompanied double bass introduced “Illusion”, an atmospheric and aptly titled composition that also featured the sounds of electronic guitar textures, mallets on cymbals and the leader’s fragile sax melodies, with Speake sounding much as Jan Garbarek might if the Norwegian played alto.
The programme concluded with a composition that Speake simply described as “Four, Four, Jazz Time”, which re-introduced the orthodox jazz feel via an upbeat melodic theme and features for all four musicians. A great way to end a brilliant evening of music making.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Martin Speake performing live on several occasions over the years, including with his International Quartet featuring Bobo Stenson and Paul Motian and his Generations quartet featuring Jeff Williams, bassist Dave Green and pianist Barry Green.
I have to say that tonight’s show was probably the best so far. The support of a large and knowledgeable audience helped and Speake and the band were clearly enjoying themselves. Speake’s announcements were pithy, informative and sometimes humorous, also adding to the enjoyment of the evening. But, of course, the most important component was the music, with Speake putting the focus on his own writing. His tunes are intelligent, sometimes quirky and place a strong emphasis on melody. His themes are excellent vehicles for improvisers, as this exceptional quartet demonstrated.
At the heart of the music was the empathic rapport between Speake and Outram, teaching colleagues at Trinity Laban and long time musical collaborators. These two received magnificent rapport from the flexible and intelligent rhythm team of Gourlay and Maillot. Gourlay is one of the UK’s most adaptable and in demand bassists and a bandleader in his own right. I was also highly impressed with Maillot, and particularly his cymbal work. His colourful contribution added much to the success of the music.
Tonight’s show has also sent me back to Speake’s impressive back catalogue, and particularly his albums made with guitarists, “Always A First Time” with Outram, “In Our Time” with Parricelli and “Amazing Grace”, a 1996 recording for Spotlite Jazz featuring guitarist Phil Lee. I’ve been listening to these while writing this and it’s been a pleasure to hear them again.
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