The slightly built Chris Speed stands tall among the ever burgeoning population of excellent New York saxophonists, contributing to a number of downtown bands (led by John Zorn, Myra Melford, and Dave Douglas among others) while leading two or three of his own. In the best known of these, the quirky quartet called Pachora, Speed restricts himself to clarinet and shares the front line with saz, the Turkish long-necked lute–the better to explore the Balkan muse that inspires the band’s compositions. But even in the more conventional setting of his quartet Yeah No–where he plays mostly tenor and replaces the saz with trumpet–Speed retains his fascination with the music of Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. The reeling melodies and assymetrical rhythms common to music of this area reflect its geographical position: they straddle east and west, and if Yeah No did nothing more than exploit this duality, they’d still command attention. But Speed and company are far more intrigued with finding ways to explore these elements further, through dervish-like improvising that takes off from the minor-mode melodies and explodes the angular accents of the rhythms. It helps that this band has the same rhythm section as Pachora–Skuli Sverrisson, an especially open-eared bassist, and drummer Jim Black, who anticipates each feint of his bandmates but can also tap his own breathtaking pirouettes around the horns’ unison theme (as on “Tangents,” from the band’s recent Songlines disc Emit). With these bands’ shared personnel, the wild card becomes all the more vital to Yeah No’s success; in this case, it’s the sumptuous trumpetry of the Vietnamese-born, conservatory-trained Cuong Vu, which expands and ripens the band in expectable but nonetheless satisfying ways. Cuong’s own album Pure (Knitmedia) spun off from his roots, proving him no stranger to eastern techniques. He avoids interposing anything overtly Asian (which would overload the music’s stewpot); but his ecumenical background allows him to play a large role in the band’s effortless bridging of cultures. Yeah No makes its Chicago debut at this gig; the Minneapolis-based trio Happy Apple returns to open the show. Thursday, August TK, 9 PM, Schuba’s, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carmen Llussa.