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Jazz at The Hive




Ian Mann enjoys an excellent live performance by the Martin Speake Trio and takes a look at their double album "Always A First Time".

Alto saxophonist Martin Speake and his trio got Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s 2014 programme off to a great start at this well attended gig at The Hive. Speake is one of the UK’s most versatile alto players and has recorded prolifically, often on his own Pumpkin label which he founded in 2007. Born in 1958 Speake came to prominence during the 1980’s jazz boom, initially as a member of the saxophone quartet Itchy Fingers. He later established a solo career and has worked with like minded musicians from all over the globe in a variety of different jazz styles and line ups, from the mainstream to the experimental, duo to jazz orchestra. A keenly intelligent musician Speake defies categorisation or pigeon holing.

Among his current projects is his innovative trio featuring guitarist Mike Outram and Speake’s long time collaborator, drummer Jeff Williams. In 2012 these three recorded the adventurous double album “Always A First Time”, a lavishly packaged collection that was released on Pumpkin in 2013. Largely recorded “live in the studio” the material includes an impressive collection of Speake originals, four jazz standards and an arrangement of a piece by Puccini (of which more later). Many of the pieces were first takes, hence the title, I guess. The style ranges from chamber jazz to more experimental, subtly rock tinged pieces, the music often beautiful but always fiercely intelligent.

Each tune is dedicated to a person, these ranging from Speake’s childhood jazz heroes and contemporary musical colleagues to more personal family dedications. There’s even a piece dedicated to Fidel Castro. The packaging is liberally sprinkled with thought provoking quotes from a wide variety of sources, musical, political, literary and philosophical, a reflection of Speake’s wide range of interests ( parallel to his musical career he practises Nutritional Medicine).

The material played at Shrewsbury was largely sourced from “Always A First Time” but there was one enforced change from the album line up. American born Williams had been obliged to return to the US to be with his father who is currently seriously ill. Here at the Jazzmann we wish Jeff and Mr. Williams Sr. well at this difficult time.

For the Shrewsbury show Mark Sanders stepped into the breach and acquitted himself superbly. Speake and Sanders are old friends and colleagues and collaborated on the spontaneous duo album “Spark”, reviewed elsewhere on this site. I’ve seen Sanders perform live before in bands led by saxophonists Paul Dunmall and Ken Vandermark and as part of guitarist Alex Ward’s powerful quartet Predicate. On each of these occasions he’s been an energetic “driver” of the band, tonight represented a welcome opportunity to see Sanders in more of a “colourist” role and he responded magnificently, giving notice as to just what a versatile musician he is. Amazingly this was his first performance with this particular trio but one would never have guessed.

The first set began with Speake’s tune “Pumpkin”, from which his record label took its name, Speake’s alto dovetailed delicately with Outram’s spidery guitar lines above a backdrop of Sanders’ cymbal shimmers. Speake exhibited a purity of tone and inventive turn of phrase that recalled that of Lee Konitz, one of his major inspirations. Outram was the perfect foil, his textured guitar playing making subtle use of tone controls and other electronic effects.

The title track from “Always A First Time” began with a sax/guitar duet and introduced a folk like melody which formed the basis for solos from Speake on typically pure toned alto and Outram on guitar, the latter’s feature full of inventive and imaginative chord progressions. Sanders meanwhile grew into his role, colouring the music intelligently as he deployed a variety of sticks, brushes and mallets. The similarly versatile Williams performs a similar role on the recorded version.

Solo saxophone ushered in an innovative arrangement of Rodgers & Hart’s standard “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, Speake subsequently playing snatches of the melody as he soloed above the brushed bustle of Sanders’ drums. Outram’s solo saw him adopting a cleaner, more orthodox jazz guitar sound full of agile chording. Finally came a largely brushed drum feature from Sanders, which also saw him making imaginative use of his bass drum to convey complex rhythmic inflections.

Speake’s laconic announcing style saw him introduce the next tune as “this one’s by Puccini”. This proved to be the trio’s version of “O Mio Babbino Caro”, which also appears on the album. Saxophone and guitar gently ushered in Puccini’s memorable melody with Sanders later adding delicate brush work. However an innovative twist later saw the trio gradually steering the music in a more contemporary direction and flirting with atonality as Sanders swapped his brushes for sticks and mallets and Outram effected bass lines on the top strings of his guitar.

Bud Powell’s “Audrey” doesn’t appear on “Always a First Time” but the title suggests a dedication and the tune therefore seemed an appropriate choice. Another sax/guitar intro announced the boppish theme, this leading to a series of thrilling exchanges between Speake, Outram and Sanders and finally an extended solo from the drummer.

Returning to the album we heard “Folk Song For Paul”, Speake’s homage to the late, great drummer Paul Motian (1931-2011), with whom he collaborated on the 2006 ECM album “Change Of Heart”. Outram’s extraordinary solo guitar intro made subtle use of layering and looping effects before Speake’s alto stated the lovely, almost naïve, folk like melody. Gentle but imaginative solos by Outram and Speake were sympathetically supported by Sanders’ sympathetic brush work. Dedicated the piece to Motian, Speake revealed what a significant influence the older man had been on him.

The first half ended with an unannounced standard, most likely the album’s “When Your Lover Has Gone”, which included solos from Speake and Outram, exchanges with Sanders, and finally a drum featuring Sanders’ familiar use of brushes and bass drum.

The second set was equally fine, but by this time Speake seemed to be getting bored of tune announcements and the trio seemed to be enjoying themselves too much to let such niceties get in the way of their music making. Most people didn’t seem to mind but it’s not quite so easy for a reviewer!

The first piece began with an alto/drum duet and took the music into powerful, free jazz waters barely hinted at in the first set culminating in a stunning solo from Sanders that demonstrated the high octane style of his that I was more familiar with. Summoning an astonishing array of sounds from his kit Sanders produced a percussive tour de force that went down a storm with the Shrewsbury audience. The piece proved to be “In Code”, Speake’s spiky tribute to the great Ornette Coleman.

A change of pace for “Best Laid Plans”, an original piece with a melody that wouldn’t have disgraced a standard.  

This pensive rendition included a wonderfully imaginative solo from Outram, reminiscent at times of Pat Metheny at his best, and an equally thoughtful and absorbing dialogue between old sparring partners Speake and Sanders.

The Speake original “15 Years Too Long” reintroduced the saxophonist’s bebop tendencies and included extended solo passages from each of the three instrumentalists.

“Country Boy” was Speake’s dedication to the American bassist Charlie Haden (one time colleague of Paul Motian, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley, Pat Metheny and many others). The title references Haden’s upbringing in rural Missouri (also Metheny’s home state) but behind the attractive melody the playing possessed a grit that reflected Haden’s later political activism.

Next up (I think) was “Secret Wood”, Speake’s dedication to his trio colleague Mike Outram. Song like in construction, the piece opened with Outram alone, establishing a hypnotic guitar motif which locked in with Sander’s drum groove to provide a backdrop for Speake’s opening solo. Outram’s own solo evidenced a strong rock influence, one that I’ve seen surface in his playing many times over the years in bands led by drummer Asaf Sirkis and others. As versatile as his colleagues Outram has worked extensively in other fields including pop, rock and theatre.

The second set concluded with two airy, gossamer light ballads which saw Outram playing without a pick to increase the overall air of tenderness and fragility. The second of these exquisite pieces was the standard “If I Loved You” by Rodgers and Hammerstein which saw the musicians expertly letting the music fade away to nothingness, as dramatic in its own quiet way as Outram’s earlier guitar pyrotechnics.

An attentive and enthusiastic audience summoned the trio back for a deserved encore and the band raised the energy levels once more with a free-wheeling excursion based around bebop styled motifs and with a final brilliant solo from Speake. This was later revealed to have been “Tom”, Speake’s dedication to the contemporary jazz drummer Tom Skinner (Sons of Kemet, Hello Skinny etc.).

Overall this was a performance that, for me, confirmed Speake’s continued reputation as one of the UK’s best saxophonists, a player with a particularly fertile musical mind. It also introduced me to fresh aspects in the playing of Outram and Sanders, both of whom were superb tonight.

SJN’s Hilary Hannaford was delighted with both the quality of the music and the size and enthusiasm of the audience. Once again the jazz listeners of Shrewsbury and beyond had proved their enthusiasm for top class adventurous contemporary jazz. A terrific start to 2014.

Meanwhile the trio’s album “Always A First Time” is highly recommended, an immaculately recorded double set full of imaginative and intelligent originals and similarly inspired arrangements of outside material. Retailing at just £10.00 on Speake’s website it represents excellent value for money – and the music is superb too.