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Poetry and Jazz

Celebrating Martin Speake

by Robin Kidson



Martin Speake


Tempus fugit as they say. It seems like only yesterday that I was marvelling at the sound made by a young, up-and-coming saxophone quartet called Itchy Fingers. And now I learn that one of the founding members of that group, the alto saxophonist, Martin Speake, is celebrating his 60th birthday this year. 60! Where did the time go? - but here is an occasion to celebrate the saxophonist's work.

Speake is celebrating his birthday with the release of a new album, Intention, on the Ubuntu label. He is also embarking on a celebration tour.

Itchy Fingers was part of the re-flowering of British jazz in the early 80s which also brought us the likes of Andy Sheppard, Courtney Pine, Loose Tubes and a host of other fine musicians. The band had a great deal of success both in the UK and Europe.


Here they are playing Yuppieville Rodeo from the album Quark in 1987.




Speake left in 1988 so he could develop his own projects. Since then, he has performed in a wide variety of settings and has released numerous albums both as leader and sideman, including Change of Heart in 2006 on the mighty ECM label with Paul Motian, Bobo Stenson and Mick Hutton. Speake is an interesting and accomplished composer and all eight tracks on Change of Heart were written by him. Speake calls Paul Motian “one of my main inspirations in music”, and the opportunity to play with the legendary American drummer was one of the highlights of his career.


Ethan Iverson


Another highlight came in 1990 when Speake studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada with the likes of Steve Coleman, Stanley Cowell and Kenny Wheeler. It was there that he met a 17 year old American pianist called Ethan Iverson. The two musicians formed a duo which toured in 2002 and released an album of standards on the Basho label called My Ideal. Iverson went on to find fame and fortune with The Bad Plus but left the band last year and has reunited with Speake on Intention.


Ethan Iverson



Speake cites Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman and Steve Coleman as well as Paul Motian as amongst his influences. However, listening to some of the tracks on Intention, there is often a classical feel to his playing so it comes as no surprise to learn that he originally studied classical saxophone at Trinity College of Music and that his back catalogue includes an album based on compositions by Béla Bartók (Duos For Trio – The Music of Béla Bartók on Pumpkin Records). However, “Guess The Influence” is not really a game you can play with Martin Speake. His playing – cool, wistful, lyrical with occasional, but always tasteful, forays into free jazz – is all his own.

Take a track from Intentions, for example: a version of Charlie Parker’s Charlie’s Wig. This begins as a straightforward piece of bop with Speake doing a great job of channelling Bird. However, it quickly turns into something very different - something much more contemporary and free with Speake sounding most un-Birdlike but with an intensity which the Master would surely have admired.


Here is a live performance of Charlie’s Wig





Martin Speake and fred Thomas



As well as Ethan Iverson on piano, Speake is joined (as on the CD) by Fred Thomas on bass and James Maddren on drums.

Intention also includes some Speake compositions from previous albums in his extensive back catalogue. The tracks The Heron and Magic Show, for example, first saw the light of day on the album Trust released back in 1996 on Danny Thompson’s The Jazz label. The Heron is Speake at his most lyrical making his alto sound like a flute at times with the music cleverly imitating the movements of said bird. Magic Show is a short piece with a complex but accessible theme.


Martin Speake and Fred Thomas
Pizza Express Live






The Heron from Intention played live.





Hidden Vision, Blackwell, Spring Dance, and the title track, Intention, go back even further to the 1994 release, In Our Time, again on The Jazz label. “It is fascinating”, says Speake, “to see how my approach has developed since these albums and how the musicians on Intention interpret these pieces”.


A live performance of the title track, Intention




As well as composing and playing, Speake also teaches at Trinity Laban Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music. He also, interestingly, has a BSc in Nutritional Medicine and is a member of the Naturopathic Nutrition Association. That hinterland, and the broader philosophy of life and well-being which it implies, translates into his music. The track Intention, for example, is inspired by Wayne W. Dyer’s book, The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way.

And so, Martin Speake is 60, which is not really a big age these days. 60 is the new 40; tempus is not what it used to be. May Martin Speake go on making great music for many more years to come.

Intention was released on the Ubuntu label on 20th April. Click here for details and to sample the album.

You can read more about Martin Speake on his website here.

Martin Speake is currently touring with his quartet. Dates in May are:

1st May: East Hastings Sea Angling Association
3rd May: Hidden Rooms, Cambridge
4th May: The Lighthouse, Poole


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Other pages you might find of interest :

Snowpoet Poetry and Jazz
Albert Ayler at the LSE
Jeff Williams - An American Jazzman in London
Jazz As Art

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