For more than 25 years, reedist Chris Speed has been one of the most fascinating and versatile figures in jazz and improvised music, an individualist who puts ensemble first. He’s occasionally claimed top billing on records by bands he’s led—including with the corkscrewing Yeah No, which translated IDM rhythms into hyperactive acoustic grooves—but for the bulk of his career he’s been subsumed in a group identity or playing as a sideman.
Speed, 51, is a founding member of Human Feel, the group that introduced the world to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel in the late 80s. He’s translated Balkan traditions into modern jazz settings in Pachora, served as the yin to Tim Berne’s yang in Bloodcount, enabled John Hollenbeck’s new-music ambitions in the Claudia Quintet, goosed the rhythmic throttle of Endangered Blood, and pursued daring extroversion in the Clarinets. He’s worked in support of trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianists Craig Taborn and Uri Caine, and bassist Michael Formanek, to name just a few.
Chris Speed Trio
Fri 8/31, 1:50-2:45 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion
Also Fri 8/31, 9 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, hungrybrainchicago.com, free, 21+
“Jazz is impossibly hard,” Speed says. “As much as I work on the music, I find myself working harder than ever trying to unravel the mysteries of so much I’ve listened to all of my life.” He’s recently spent hours, he explains, reengaging with the 1966 Sonny Rollins classic East Broadway Run Down. “You realize you’re never going to be able to do a better job, but that’s not the point. The point is to move people, and I’m just trying to constantly be a better musician.”
Speed has his roots in the avant-garde, but in 2013 he finally dived headfirst into straight-up jazz, forming a trio with bassist Chris Tordini and Bad Plus drummer Dave King—the lineup he’s bringing to the Jazz Festival on Friday. That band has made two excellent albums, and last year’s Platinum on Tap (Intakt) showcases the exquisite tenor saxophone tone Speed has developed over the years, velvety and aspirated.
Speed says he knew who he wanted to play with in this trio before he knew what they’d try to do together, but their mission revealed itself soon enough. “It’s definitely a conscious decision on my part to really make this as jazz as it could be,” he says. “I love jazz, and I’ve been playing and listening to it most of my life. Most of my projects have some sort of other bent to them, whether it’s more improv heavy or more rock heavy or, with Pachora, really trying to focus on folk music.”
In the projects for which he’s written music, the proclivities of his colleagues have often changed the complexion of his songs, resulting in what he calls a “hybrid sound.” In the trio, however, King and Tordini are committed to helping Speed pursue a classic jazz sound, albeit one filtered through his melodic idiosyncracies. “They’re both great musicians who can do anything, but they’re both totally down to play tunes and keep it in those parameters,” Speed says. “We’ve done some things that venture out a little bit, but the stuff that moves people are the ballads.”
In his writing for the group, he uses bridges, blues, and standard jazz progressions—including the ubiquitous “rhythm changes,” a 32-bar progression from George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” that’s been a jazz building block since the 1930s. “In the trio I can really focus on swing and a compositional side of me that’s more songful,” Speed says. “I don’t want to say it’s a tribute—it’s just what I’m going for in this moment with those guys, and I’m wanting to stay there. Those guys sound so good swinging.” He says Platinum on Tap isn’t a record he could’ve made 20 years ago. “I feel confident that, even if I do play a blues, at least I’ll be playing myself and not a bastardized or lamer version of one of my heroes.”
In 2015 Speed moved from New York to Los Angeles—where he lives with his wife, flutist Leah Paul, and their daughter, Marnie—but even before he left the nerve center of North American jazz, he was often overlooked by the listening public, seemingly a perpetual musician’s musician. He continues to work with multiple long-running projects, including Human Feel and Endangered Blood, and he has a thrilling new quartet called Broken Shadows with his old bandmate Tim Berne, which is devoted to the music of Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, and Dewey Redman. The Chris Speed Trio, though, allows him to explore his full range in a single context, while also saluting the musicians he grew up listening to. “I’m trying to dig deeper into this world of Trane and Sonny and Joe Henderson and all of those amazing, inspiring heroes,” Speed says, “and kind of be there unapologetically instead of trying to color it somehow.” v