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martin speake | nikki iles | the tan t’ien

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Martin Speake & Nikki Iles

The Tan T’ien
FMR / CD51V0898

Martin Speake / alto saxophone, Nikki Iles / piano

Cool school heaven. Speake’s list of influences says it all: Konitz, Bill Evans, Kenny Wheeler and a handful of classical impressionists. The pieces drift along at a medium tempo which is a shade too breezy for a ballad, while lush harmonies, major keys and ruminative solos predominate. The whole thing is like listening to cucumbers.

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Half of the eighteen tracks here are based on compositions and half were freely improvised. It’s difficult to tell the two approaches apart; the heads which they choose are abstract, limpid affairs executed with offhand simplicity, while most of the free pieces settle quickly into a halo of tonality. There are moments when things get a bit spikier, but not many, and neither player seems comfortable in such uncertain waters.

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Speake’s tone is pure and radiant, like a thoughtful little angel, and Iles has swallowed Bley and Evans whole; a pairing of fortuitous sympathy given that they are not a “regular” duo. Speake often reminded this listener of Jimmy Giuffre, his brown tone and approach to solos alike, but Giuffre’s pleasure at stepping out onto the edge is pretty much absent here, as if the pair are seated in unusually comfortable armchairs. They even have a pop at “Ugly Beauty”, and manage to make it sound like “All the Things you Are”.

This is sunny, intimate, nobody-gets-hurt music, more about note-choice and phrasing than complicated scale-work, and while there’s nothing new or unusual or exciting here it’s well-played and eminently listenable. Speake’s solos have a logic which is only found in this kind of playing, a neat simplicity which ties up all the loose threads. Nice. Richard Cochrane