London-based trumpeter and flugelhorn player Loz Speyer is currently touring the UK with his Inner Space Music quintet – Chris Biscoe (alto sax, alto clarinet), Rachel Musson (tenor and soprano saxes), Olie Brice (double bass), Gary Willcox (drums) – concluding at the Vortex on 14th December. He took time out from his seven-date schedule to answer a few questions from Adrian Pallant:
Adrian Pallant: Loz – Inner Space Music’s clearly channels the exciting tradition and raw immediacy of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus et al. Can you tell us a little about how the concept for this quintet came about?
Loz Speyer: Well that’s a long story. I first put together Inner Space Music to play some sketchy compositions based on the Five Animals Qigong forms that were also influenced by Steve Lacy’s solo saxophone pieces (the ones beginning with Hs and Ws). I’ve been practising Qigong now for many years – ie internal energy cultivation through meditation and movement, the practise at the roots of Tai Qi, and Chinese medicine. The Five Animals Qigong is a particularly fun part of this tradition. I see a strong connection between the inner freedom expressed in Qigong and that expressed in jazz. I came across the idea first in my early 20s from two inspirational books – Zen in the Art of Archery (Herigal) and As serious as your life (Val Wilmer) – and, shortly after, experiencing close at hand, Cecil Taylor Octet and Sun Ra during a three-month stay in NYC, as well as much in London from the likes of John Stevens, Elton Dean, Moholo, Dyani, Tippett et al. The music seems to me a true expression in sound of that state of inner liveliness, space and freedom written in the Zen book and practised in Qigong. It’s there in the music of the jazz innovators, as well as in the concept of Qi. I am not the only one looking at it this way – see, for example, Steve Lacy’s composition The Way: a setting of the Dao Te Ching.
So these ideas lie behind what we are getting at in Inner Space Music, in a very playful interactive way. The form is set by the particular composition, as well as in the moment, and we’re all free to express within that. The form can be a harmonic structure, a pulse and a key, a set of related pulses, or a mood or image. In the case of the Five Animals music, there is a channelling of the animal’s character and spirit as well as the musical form.
AP: Since the release of debut quartet album, Five Animal Dances, several years ago, how would you say the band has evolved and developed?
LS: The line-up changed after that album and we dug into both the rhythmic and the free improv implications of the music with the new rhythm section of Olie Brice on bass and Graham Fox drums. Then we added a third melody voice, with Rachel on saxes, which opened up the harmonic possibilities in arrangements so we could draw on a bigger sound when we wanted it, and improvise some of that into the interplay. It is amazing to have both Rachel and Chris on saxes – two such distinctive and individual voices bouncing off each other. And our newest member, Gary Willcox, connects us where we left off with a combination of driving swing and the liberty to instantly change direction, tempo, mood and texture.
AP: Often out of Inner Space Music’s hard-bopping structure and rhythm arises colourful landscapes of focused, often vigorous improvisation which suggests a great ensemble spirit, as well as seemingly quite personal solo expressions. Where would you say this freedom takes you, the band, and your audiences?
LS: Perhaps into a space where anything is possible? It should certainly wake everyone up. The latest review said that a sense of warmth and space emanated from the stage. It could be to do with an awareness of stillness in movement, and movement arising out of stillness – but these words are meaningless without the experience. And the experience of playing it is likely to be very different to that of listening to it.
AP: Ellington-like horn phrases seem to be fascinatingly woven into your writing. How would you compare or contrast smaller group projects such as this with your compositions and arrangements for big band; is it mostly about greater improvisational openness?
LS: Improvisation and composition are like two sides of the same coin. The nice thing is, in a small group, you can make it up as you go along, even with those rich textures which can blend with the composed parts. Some people have done this in much larger groups of course, notably Sun Ra, Keith Tippett, JCOA, Elton Dean’s Ninesense, Louis Moholo’s Spirits Rejoice – to name but a few that I’ve heard live.
AP: You’re touring the North East, Devon and Cornwall, and concluding at the Vortex on 14 December. What have you discovered, at your gigs and masterclasses, about the enthusiasm and response of jazz club audiences outside of your London base?
LS: We’ve been getting a very positive response from all of our audiences, both in the cities and in the small places. Everyone has been very enthusiastic about the music and the great vibe the band generates, and it’s really a joy to be doing it! Then there are the workshops – the first one in Newcastle was very interesting; it opened up how we play on a couple of the newest tunes in the set – we learnt from our students and, from teaching by ear, more about how to approach those tunes.
AP: Who, on the current UK recording scene and live circuit, is making you sit up and listen? And specifically, which jazz trumpet player is catching your attention?
LS: There are a lot of great musicians and groups doing really good work. Lately I’ve been really struck with gigs by flautist Neil Metcalfe, drummer Steve Noble and Cuban trumpeter Carlos Sarduy Dimet (with Irakere).
AP: Can you offer us a tantalising glimpse of any projects or gigs you’re lining-up for 2016?
LS: There is a project in the offing with a film-maker for his documentary about the great jazz drummer Clifford Jarvis. Years ago, working with Clifford, I arranged some music written by his father (a trumpeter and activist friend of Malcolm X). There’s a plan afoot with the film-maker to expand and record my arrangement (currently for jazz six-piece plus strings). There’s also a plan for an exhibition of my photos of Cuba, and I’m looking for how to link this up with my other band, Time Zone, playing some of our Cuban Jazz crossover thing. Inner Space Music is recording for an album at the end of this tour and we’ll be looking to launch that live, later in the year, on a bigger stage.