In a rather striking co-incidence, Martin Speake brought a quartet to Bristol this week exactly two years to the day since his last visit with a foursome under his own name. On the previous visit he brought drummer James Maddren with him and the legendary Bobo Stenson on piano. The overlap with this visit was the peer-less Maddren on drums, the inclusion of the Parker tune Charlie’s Wig in the set and a good sprinkling of Speake originals (although not the same ones). The piano chair this time was occupied by Ethan Iverson, recently sprung from the Bad Plus (now non-plused?). F-ire collective luminary Fred Thomas was on bass.
It’s perhaps a sign of what a singular musician Speake is, that this band both sounded like his band, something in the tonalities, changes of pace, freedom with which they improvise collectively, intensity mixed with restraint and yet, they sounded quite different from that quartet of two years ago. They moved between loose, tumbling themes that led into open free-wheeling improv, and tighter, grooving and swinging pieces. Twister closed the first set, a shuffling bluesy work out. They’d opened with Becky a more impressionistic piece and then worked through Charlie’s Wig, delivered as scronky be-bop and Hidden Vision, a folky theme and a rocking groove that seemed to trigger a gear shift in Iverson’s playing, liquid phrases and spiralling runs piling up as momentum accumulated. In the second set, an Ornett-ish head, and quick fire exchanges round the band, led to an explosive piano solo, glittering shards of patterns from the right hand were setting against thunderous crashes from the left hand. As the solo found its way to a conclusion, there were distant echoes of the thunder from the drums. Maddren was in superlative form. The quartet played this gig completely acoustically and it would have been easy to miss the exquisite balance and control from the kit as he made each piece fizz and pop, colour and textures alternating with fiercely driving rhythms.
It was Speake’s hand in the majority of the compositions however, most of them from the just released Intention, recorded with this band, and his distilled, bitter-sweet sound wove through the gig, balancing between a contented joyfulness and melancholy tinged reflectiveness. Whether a swirling group sound, haunting melody, or dancing driving pulse, it was compelling music. It made me want to go and get hold of the album.