Chris Speed

Chris Speed, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist, was born in Seattle. Speed was introduced to classical music at the age of five. He played clarinet and piano before becoming more interested in improvisation and the alto saxophone in high school. Speed moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. He soon joined the Human Feel collaborative ensemble, which included Speed, drummer Jim Black (also from Seattle), guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and bassist Joe Fitzgerald. Speed was also part of Orange Then Blue (son of Gunther), the big band that was creatively led by George Schuller. Speed’s early recordings include Human Feel’s Scatter (1992), and Orange Then Blues While You Were Out (94), both both on the GM Recordings record. Speed’s greatest achievements would come after he moved from New York City to join several of the “downtown scene” pioneering bands. These were Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, Dave Douglas Sextet, Myra Melford and The Same River, Twice, which were all critically acclaimed as being three of the most influential bands in creative jazz and improvised musical compositions of the 1990s. Speed was a member of Human Feel through the mid-’90s. It survived the departure of its principals from Boston and produced two CDs as a quartet without Fitzgerald. Speed also remained with Orange Then Blue after George Schuller’s group moved its headquarters to New York. Bloodcount and the New York edition of Human Feel maintained Speed’s relationship to drummer Jim Black. Speed and Black performed together in these and other downtown groups. They are remarkably similar in musical settings and have remained strong, empathetic collaborators. Speed became interested in gypsy music when he was a teenager in Boston. He and fellow Orange Than Blue alumnus Matt Darriau have been a prominent New York musician combining jazz and creativeimprovisation with Eastern European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern folk music. This is Speed’s main vehicle for exploring this aspect of his musical interests. The band includes Speed on clarinet and Black on dumbek and drums. Also, Brad Shepik plays electric guitar and electric saz, while Skuli Sverrisson plays electric bass. Speed’s ability to engage folk-flavored clarinet lines in Pachora’s lively, groove-based tunes is demonstrated by his skill. They retain an old-world feel while still being contemporary. Pachora released three Knitting Factory Records CDs, in 1997, 1998 and 1999. The band’s third album, Ast, is their strongest to date, and it is worth looking out. Speed is certainly an artistic force in Pachora and is a strong leader among the four other artists, but he is also the man responsible for yeah NO, which is the group that best represents his musical vision. Speed is a clarinet and tenor saxophonist with the group. Cuong Vu, a former Seattlite, also plays with the group. Sverrisson plays bass, and Jim Black, on drums, completes the quartet. Although Eastern European folk rhythms and melodies are present in the music at yeah NO, they are not considered a limitation in terms of stylistic design. Folk elements are only one part of a wider palette that includes sharply focused, sometimes very lyrical, creative jazz compositions and four-way collectiveimprovisations as well as explorations of ambience and texture. Yeah NO, like Human Feel before it, often challenges the traditional relationships between rhythm section and front line. In any combination of the four members, they could lock together or separate, move from the background into the foreground or switch from soloist to accompanyist mode. The quartet’s approach encourages active listening and is full of surprises. It is possible to attribute the stylistic similarities between the mid-’90s Human Feel album and the later yeah no, mainly to the presence in each band of Speed and Black. It is worth noting that the two bands also share a connection in Sverrisson. The future yeah NO bassist produced Speak To It, which was the last Human Feel CD to be released by Songlines in 1996. Songlines has released three CDs by Chris Speed and the yeah no band. The first was called “Yeah No” in 1997. Deviantics followed in 1999 and Emit 2000. Speed’s latest CD release is the Iffy trio, which includes keyboardist Jamie Saft as well as drummer Ben Perowsky. This unit features Speed’s strongest clarinet and tenor playing, as well as incendiary Hammond organ support by Saft and splashy drumming by Perowsky (who is more “jazzy” than Jim Black’s tightly coiled bundles of percussive energies). Speed’s 2000 eponymous CD was released by Knitting Factory Records. It is a great place to start listening to his work if you are not familiar with his previous output. Speed’s adventurous and edgy approach is evident, but there are also touchstones to more mainstream and traditional elements of post-bop and soul jazz. Speed continues to perform as a sideman in bands led by James Emery and Mark Dresser. Speed is still a member of the Dave Douglas Sextet. He was most recently featured on Soul on Soul which Douglas’ highly acclaimed Mary Lou Williams tribute album, released by RCA Victor in 2000. Speed was also part of the debut of Douglas’ Witness large ensemble project at Tonic in New York in July 2000. Chris Speed’s success as both a bandleader and sideman is at least partially due to his willingness to let his collaborators have their say and to get out of the spotlight. Speed is an engaging soloist. His clarinet tone is lovely and his wailing voice can make a powerful impression at quiet volumes. Speed is also a skilled soloist, using a variety of extended techniques on both his trumpets. He’s also a creative thinker who loves to discover new textures and timbres. Speed is a great leader, but Speed also surrounds himself with musicians whose music often attracts the same or greater attention as his own. Speed is an artist who has grown in maturity and values his fellow musicians. Speed is focused on the collective sound of the band and how each member can make a distinctive statement. from

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