Songlines / SGL1524-2
Chris Speed / tenor sax, clarinet, Cuong Vu / trumpet, Skuli Sverrisson / bass, Jim Black / drums, melodica
The line-up and, to an extent, the sound of this group does, of course, recall Ornette’s classic Atlantic sessions. The pianoless quartet, with its two melody instruments capable of elaborating independent, contrapuntal lines without the shackles of a chord progression, was revolutionary then and has proved a durable format. It’s the same line-up, for example, as Masada, and it’s very close to Time Berne’s Bloodcount, of which both Speed and Black are alumni.
Speed has something of Berne about his playing. Like Berne’s, it’s deeply indebted to Ornette, with its reliance on motivic development and beautifully lilting, zig-zag melodies. Both men also play with a gutsiness which the older player shied away from, perhaps because he really did pay his bar-walking dues and as the composer of “Skies of America” he doesn’t care to remember them. Yet few would confuse Speed and Berne; the former has a less querelous tone, a more flowing melodicism than is typical of his erstwhile employer.
All of which is not to imply that he’s a laid-back tenor player — this is a cooking album, it’s just not a screaming one — but his clarinet is as limpid and arch as one might expect. Sverrisson’s sole compositional credit, “Tulip”, makes lovely use of the instrument, pitted against some very minimal drums and interjections from the trumpet.
What Speed’s quartet plays is something akin to the music of “The Shape of Things to Come” or the other discs of that period, but updated primarily by virtue of Jim Black’s funky, often rock-oriented drumming. Rarely does this music swing in the way that free jazz often does; one is reminded of the strolling rhythm of “Lonely Woman” rather than Elvin Jones’ blasting triplets. Right down to the melodica, Jim Black might look like Jack DeJohnette on paper, but his sound is altogether more modern, and much more open to rock innovations. One suspects him of playing along to Yes albums in the garage during formative years, but that’s pure speculation, of course.
The Ornette comparison isn’t always helpful, of course. Sverrisson is no Charlie Haden, and unless this writer is much mistaken he’s playing fretless bass guitar on this session with a large spoonful of funk which blends with Black’s futuristic Brufordisms perfectly. Cuong Vu is a long way from Don Cherry, too, sounding more like a sort of downtown, souped-up and often hot-to-trot reincarnation of Chet Baker. Like Speed, he favours motifs which develop by means of curling scales and pithy little comments. Vu is definitely a name to watch in the future; on the evidence of this session, he’s a hugely talented player. If you like Bloodcount, you’ll love this, but it’s not just a Bloodcount re-tread. There’s interesting and fresh stuff going on here for anyone who likes their free jazz exciting, slightly funky, slightly rocky but also just a little bit traditional. Richard Cochrane