Chris Speed Trio – Platinum on Tap
(Intakt 294. CD review by Brian Marley)
I’ve had the good fortune to be able to listen to Platinum on Tap half a dozen times before having to write anything about it. Just as well. I confess, on first listen I wasn’t greatly impressed – the music seemed curiously restrained and limited in scope. But sometimes first impressions don’t count, and on subsequent listenings, as the compositions began to hit home, I could see how well they functioned as vehicles for improvisation. On even further listenings the quality of the musicianship shone through – and by quality I mean superb.
Why should I have been surprised? Chris Speed isn’t given to grandstanding or showiness of any kind. He rarely employs the ecstatic shrieks of post-Ayler players such as David S. Ware or the extensive false upper-register soliloquies of David Murray. Mostly he works directly off the potential of the theme, creating rhythmic and melodic complexity but always with an Ariadne thread that leads back to the source. In many respects his approach is not dissimilar to that of Lee Konitz, a ‘pure’ improviser who avoids not only repetition but, above all, cliché. If jazz is the sound of surprise (according to Whitney Balliett), then Konitz has always sought to surprise not only the audience and his fellow musicians but also himself, and Speed seems inclined that way too.
He is, of course, well known and respected as a sideman, in particular because of his role in Tim Berne’s much-lauded Bloodcount. But in recent years his own ensembles have grown in strength and importance. Although the range of his music is eclectic, often incorporating elements of chamber music and alternative rock, it’s gradually become more jazzlike, more ‘in the tradition’ than had previously been the case with the groups Pachora, Human Feel and Endangered Blood. This line of development was most noticeable when Speed on tenor saxophone, Chris Tordini double bass, and Bad Plus drummer Dave King issued Really OK (Skirl, 2014). The trio seemed much more interested in rhythm and melody than in the potential for complex harmony, and the music sweated jazz through every pore. That’s true also of Platinum on Tap, which may well be the best thing Speed has recorded under his own name.
As springboards for melodic improvisation, the compositions matter greatly. Eight of the ten on Platinum on Tap are by Speed, the others being Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, which is given a lovely reading, and Albert Ayler’s Spirits. All are deliberately spare, sinewy and sinuous, sometimes laconic (Red Hook Nights), sometimes lively (Spirits and Arrival High). They’re catchy, too. Speed mostly sticks to short phrases, building on melodic fragments, and even when Tordini and King are busily pushing and pulling the music around in interesting ways, he delivers his improvisations with wry insouciance in a style reminiscent at times of Lester Young. Surely you can’t get more jazzlike than that.