Q & A with Chris Speed

by Gary Fukushima

Saturday, April 19

Chris Speed, saxophone
Dave King, drums
Chris Tordini, bass

Blue Whale, DTLA

This is an article about saxophonist Chris Speed, one of the premier creative jazz musicians in New York and founder of Skirl Records, which has produced many excellent recordings as of late.  He’s bringing a trio into Blue Whale on Saturday, co-led by bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Dave King, who is best known for his participation in The Bad Plus, the visionary trio with pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson.  They have a record out called Really OK, and it really is, even better than that.  It is a remarkable departure from much of Speed’s prior offerings in that in that it sounds almost like a conventional throwback album, with even a few standards (the well-traveled tune All Of Me and the Coltrane composition 26-2) included among the expected original pieces.  You really should see this show on Saturday.  I mean it!

Of all the places considered to be fertile breeding grounds for jazz musicians, chances are Seattle, Washington is not prominent on most people’s radar, but the birthplace of grunge has produced an astonishing amount of current creative jazz talent.  Most of the public school systems have jazz ensembles in their curriculum, and a few Seattle area schools, notably Garfield High School and Roosevelt High School, have achieved national recognition for their big band programs.  Much of this talent has remained in the Pacific Northwest, but there are a number of musicians who moved elsewhere and have become famous in the relative obscureness of the creative jazz world.  These artists include pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Jim Black, trumpeter Cuong Vu, saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo, guitarists Miles Okazaki and Brad Shepik, violinist Eyvind Kang, and some Los Angeles musicians such as vocalist Sara Gazarek and guitarist Tim Young.  I’m sure there are countless others and if you are reading this and thinking WTF where is my name, I apologize and absorb your irritation with humility and grace.

I first heard saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed in Seattle in the mid-nineties, with his friends and fellow Northwest natives Jim Black and Cuong Vu, at the OK Hotel, a downtown club near the waterfront underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a place long defunct after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 2001 damaged most of the structures in that part of town.  The OK Hotel was a total dive, but they had interesting shows there.  I remember seeing Eyvind Kang, who normally a violinist, play a duo show on tuba with Tim Young on guitar, where the last part of the show involved trying to violently dislodge the microphone which had been shoved deep within the bowels of the giant brass instrument.  For a young college student still new to jazz, that was some mind-blowing shit.  Speed at that time was already a well established player in the creative jazz scene in New York, having first made waves with the co-operative band Human Feel, which featured D’Angelo, Black, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, to be followed up with a few other landmark groups, including yeah, NO (with Black, Cuong Vu and bassist Skuli Sverrisson), and Pachora (Black, Sverrisson, and Brad Shepik).

Nearly two decades(!) later, Speed hasn’t slowed down as he continues to make compelling records with old and new friends.  It’s remarkable to hear the album Galore by Human Feel, recorded in 2007, over a decade after their previous album.  He has played in alto and baritone saxophonist Tim Berne’s band, Bloodcount, since its inception in 1994, and he’s been a mainstay in drummer John Hollenbeck’s widely acclaimed Claudia Quintet.  One of Speed’s more recent projects, the band Endangered Blood, features alto saxophonist and clarinetist Oscar Noreiga, bassist Trevor Dunn (who some savvy music aficionados might identify from the experimental death-metal band Mr. Bungle), and Jim Black again on drums.  (Endangered Blood was also one of the very first LA Weekly picks written by one inexperienced jazz writer.)  All of these bands seem to have the gift of everlasting life, as far as band years go; maybe the blood imagery in some of these bands alludes to an origin of some vampiric nature.

Although drummer Jim Black is a constant in Speed’s groups (and Black uses Speed in his own group, Alas No Axis), there are actual documented instances of other drummers playing with Speed, particularly in trio settings.  The 2000 recording Trio Iffy featured drummer Ben Perowsky along with organist Jamie Saft, and shows yet another window into the saxophonist’s coloristic vision.  More recently, Speed along with drummer Dave King (who is an integral part of another iconic trio, The Bad Plus) and bassist Chris Tordini recorded an album called Really OK.  They are currently on the West Coast touring in support of the new offering.  Chris Speed was nice enough to contribute a few words for this article, and the title was the first thing I asked him about.  This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

GF:  Your new release is entitled Really OK.  For you, what does that mean at this point in your life?

CS:  Really OK is a riff on that backhanded compliment musicians get to hear all the time…also it’s nice to be at a point where making music feels really good, I guess through hard work, experience and also a bit of just embracing fully the path we choose…

GF:  You have known and played with Dave King for almost 15 years, and it seems that the two of you have really played a lot more as of late.  Why have you two hit it off, and how did you end up forming a trio together?

CS:  Well, Dave invited my band yeah, NO to play some shows with Happy Apple way back, and we’ve kept in touch since.  He’s been talking about about starting his trucking band to me since 2002 (eventually realized in 2011 with the formation of the band Dave King’s Trucking Co.)  The trio idea was just (that) I wanted to make music with some kick ass musicians who would be fun to play jazz tunes with and actually have the musicianship and dedication to make it sound good, and also fun to hang out with.  Chris and Dave are super insightful, soulful, witty dudes and I’ve always been intrigued by the trio format.  I mean, who doesn’t love those trio Sonny records or Joe H. (Henderson), or god, name your favorite tenor player, there is such a strong tradition of tenor trios and it feels right to focus here..

GF:  Playing more “left of center” (as your music has been described by the New York Times) has an distinct advantage in that there aren’t a lot of readily available artists to use to pigeonhole your sound.  One of the inevitable things that happens when someone does a more “traditional” jazz record is a comparison to all the hallowed legends of jazz history.  Instead of me or anyone else painting you with such a broad brush, perhaps you can tell me who you have drawn upon throughout your career for inspiration?

CS:  Haha, an advantage?  I love the tradition of jazz music, and find so much to learn from.  Also I grew up under the impression that as much time or more has to go into developing your own way, your own sound, language, artistry, etc. as of learning the history.  I don’t buy into the left of center vs. straight ahead schools that mean to divide us into camps.  I love Lester (Young) and Albert Ayler and want to stay curious about all good music and hopefully that seeps it’s way into the music I’ve made…

GF:  In 2006, you helped to create Skirl Records, which by it’s own account has documented a number of creative musicians “that drive the fertile Brooklyn scene.”  Trombonist Alan Ferber had an organization called the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, which was an early model for the Los Angeles Jazz Collective.  As many of us here in LA might not be that familiar with New York geography, what is it about Brooklyn that has made it a hotbed for forward thinking jazz musicians?

CS:  Uh, high rents in Manhattan?  Seriously, Brooklyn obviously has had a rich history of forward thinking musicians before the 90s’s.  When I moved here, I met of lot of musicians that were part of the ‘downtown’ community or working at the knit (The Knitting Factory) at that time and a lot of us moved to Brooklyn as it was more affordable then Manhattan at the time.  Communities are what you make of it and, well, understanding that branding something as ‘Brooklyn’ based or whatever is a way to make an impression, it is also where me and my friends have lived for years.

GF:  What insights have you taken away from your expanded duties from being a player to running a record label?

CS:  No insights that I didn’t already suspect before starting Skirl.  I was pretty realistic.  I knew there would be a lot of trips to the post office and that keeping the overhead low was key to keeping it going.

GF:  The Blue Whale show is part of your West Coast tour.  As someone who grew up in the Seattle area (was it Bellevue?), what are your perceptions of how creative jazz has developed on the West Coast, and do you feel there is anything of note that is different from what’s happening in New York, yet compelling on it’s own, and perhaps even affecting things somewhat over there?

CS:  I grew up in Issaquah actually, the next suburb east of Bellevue. I believe there are creative good things happening all over, I’ve done workshops, taught, and listened to bands all over where the level is so frighteningly good, and LA is no exception.  Obviously CalArts (California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA) is a hotbed of great young talented artists doing smart, fun, good music.  As far as a scene, it is hard to get an impression, it seems so spread out, which make places like what Joon has at Blue Whale so necessary and vital.  You have some incredible musicians living there though, so there must be something happening, and it seems like all of Brooklyn wants to move there now..

Speaking for myself, if we had all of Brooklyn move into Downtown LA, our scene would be in pretty good shape.  Thanks to Chris Speed for his music and his insights.

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