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Martin Speake Quartet with Ethan Iverson at Eastside Jazz Club, Birmingham

Martin Speake Quartet with Ethan Iverson (Eastside Jazz Club, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 13 February 2020. Review and photos by John Watson)

Martin Speake – intense soloing at Birmingham. Photo © John Watson/

The sound is plaintive and cool in musical temperature – subtle vibrato, few bent tones, and endlessly reflective. Yet Martin Speake creates an emotional mood with an immensely powerful undertow on the alto saxophone. His brilliantly controlled playing conveys immense beauty, and his sense of structure – the architecture of his improvising – is quite extraordinary. There’s real heart in Speake’s creativity. He is now on an extensive tour with his quartet, with US pianist Ethan Iverson (formerly of The Bad Plus), Scots-born bassist Calum Gourlay, and, on the initial dates of the tour, Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy, a regular associate of pianist Brad Mehldau. Later in the tour, Jeff Williams replaces Rossy. As Martin said recently in an interview (with full tour dates) for LondonJazzNews by Alison Bentley, he has known Iverson for over 30 years, first meeting him at a jazz course at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, and later recording a duo CD, My Ideal (Basho, 2009), and a quartet album, Intention (Ubuntu, 2018).  Gourlay is a long-time associate of Martin’s, and the saxophonist has played in the bassist’s big band. The tour, which opened at a sold-out Eastside Jazz Club, has presented Martin with the opportunity to work with Rossy for the first time. And what a wonderful partnership for all four players.

Ethan Iverson with Martin Speake’s Quartet. Photo © John Watson/

Iverson’s playing is endlessly absorbing – his sense of structure is absolute, with every solo giving the impression of being immaculately planned while still conveying a feeling of spontaneity and creating plenty of surprises. He is an absolute master at using space creatively. Similarly, Gourlay never seems to waste a note on the bass, and Rossy’s playing shades the percussive drive with sensitivity and great musicality.  It was interesting to contrast the Birmingham performance with a Speake album I’ve played a lot: Change Of Heart, his only disc for ECM, featuring pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Mick Hutton and drummer Paul Motian. That album emphasises the reflective aspect of Martin’s playing very strongly, and the tempos often drift moodily, “out of time”. At the Birmingham concert – presented by TDE Productions in association with the Conservatoire – the rhythmic direction was stronger. And the mood was not only reflective – there were plenty of fireworks in his solos too, with more powerfully intense playing than I’ve heard from him in the past.

Calum Gourlay with the Speake quartet. Photo © John Watson/

Speake opened the performance with his piece Hidden Vision from the album Intention, which he dedicated to the memory of keyboard player Lyle Mays, who died last week. “I wrote Hidden Vision after spending a lot of time listening to guitarist Pat Metheny,” the altoist told the Birmingham audience, “so it seems appropriate to dedicate it to Lyle tonight.” There were other dedications, too. To mark the centenary of Charlie Parker’s birth, Speake chose an early rarity: My Heart Tells Me (Should I Believe My Heart?), a Mack Gordon-Harry Warren song which Bird recorded with guitarist Efferge Ware and drummer Little Phil Phillips in 1942. And Martin also dedicated an original composition, titled Bill Wrathall, to a sax repairer who had helped keep is horn in trim for many years. It was interesting that the altoist’s solo on this piece extensively explored the low notes of the instrument, always the weakest area if trouble has developed higher up the horn.

Jorge Rossy at the Eastside Jazz Club. Photo © John Watson/

The Birmingham performance was a quite magnificent opening to the quartet’s tour, and we can be sure that the music will develop new dimensions as the musicians’ association continues. * In the audience at the Eastside Jazz Club performance was composer Mike Gibbs, who appears at the venue on Monday 17 February with his new Vocal Project and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Jazz Orchestra.

The Martin Speake Quartet opening their tour in Birmingham. Photo © John Watson/

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