I’ve been a fan of reedist Chris Speed for decades, and during that time he’s adapted his melodic warmth and cool intensity for a wide variety of projects—among them his early combo Human Feel (with soon-to-be-famous Seattle running mates Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jim Black, and Andrew D’Angelo), the Eastern European-flavored Pachora, Tim Berne’s serpentine Bloodcount, his own rhythmically bold Yeah No, adventurous chamber-music group the Claudia Quintet, and the wildly slaloming Endangered Blood. What nearly all of these groups have in common is a simultaneous reliance on and pushing away from a foundation of jazz. But a few years ago, Speed formed a new band that embraced jazz straightforwardly.
His trio with drummer Dave King and bassist Chris Tordini places his velvety tenor saxophone front and center, and its recent second album, Platinum on Tap (Intakt), feels less like a detour and more like a major statement. The volatile rhythm section maintains an energetic swing even when it forcefully fractures time, forcing Speed to weave through the shards—and even at those moments, the reedist’s tone never loses its cool. His sound has never been more glorious—a kind of hazy pastel marbled with a serious grain, it’s both airy and substantive. Sometimes it almost seems like he’s playing from under a blanket, but rather than sounding muffled it gains intimacy.
Speed wrote most of the music on the new album, but the two tunes by other people say just as much about him. When he dances through the Hoagy Carmichael ballad “Stardust,” it’s as if he’s reinvented its melody, shrouding it in darkness. The other cover is a killer version of Albert Ayler’s “Spirits,” which Speed sprints through as though it were a bebop theme—he departs from the composer’s gospel-steeped vibe in order to break the melody apart and reassemble it into a mosaiclike abstraction.
Below you can listen to album opener “Red Hook Nights,” a tender ballad where Speed uses his elliptical, beautiful style to elaborate on the melody with luxurious patience. His solo is filled with powerful, thoughtful silences, which create tension through subtraction, seeming to skip steps in the flow of the improvisation. On this piece (and many that follow) Speed sounds as though he’s matured—he’s never been a grandstanding player, but now he’s so far beyond the need to show off that he just lives in the music like a second skin. Even when the group turns up the heat, as on “Buffalo 15,” Speed hangs onto his chill approach, applying his horn to the roiling rhythms almost like a balm. Here’s hoping the trio makes it to Chicago one of these days.
Giuseppe Ielassi, Giuseppe Ielassi (Häpna)
Dave Brubeck Quartet, The Great Concerts (Columbia)
Vanessa Benelli Mosell, Light: Scriabin/Stockhausen (Decca)
Leo Cuypers, Leo Cuypers (MCN/BASF)
Davy Graham, Folk, Blues & Beyond . . . (Fledg’ling/Decca)