Like a number of emerging musicians on the New York creative jazz scene during the 1990s, clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed grew up in the Seattle area. Speed was first introduced to classical music and played the piano and clarinet before becoming interested in improvisation and the tenor saxophone during high school. He moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory and was soon part of the collaborative ensemble Human Feel, which in addition to Speed featured drummer Jim Black (also from Seattle), alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and bassist Joe Fitzgerald. Speed was also a member of Orange Then Blue, the creative big band led by drummer George Schuller (son of Gunther). Two noteworthy recordings from this early period of Speed's career are Human Feel's Scatter (1992) and Orange Then Blue's While You Were Out (1994), both on the GM Recordings label.
However, Speed's greatest accomplishments would occur after he moved to New York City and joined several pioneering bands on the so-called "downtown scene." These included Tim Berne's Bloodcount, the Dave Douglas Sextet, and Myra Melford's The Same River, Twice, critically acclaimed as three of the 1990s' top working bands in creative jazz and improvised music. Through the mid-'90s Speed remained a member of Human Feel, which survived its principals' move from Boston and released two CDs as a quartet minus bassist Fitzgerald. (Speed also stayed with Orange Then Blue when George Schuller's ensemble shifted its base of operations to New York.) Notably, Bloodcount and the New York version of Human Feel continued Speed's relationship with drummer Jim Black. Performing together in these and other subsequent downtown groups, Speed and Black have remained highly empathetic collaborators who are strikingly likeminded in diverse musical settings.
Speed first became interested in gypsy music during his Boston days and along with fellow Orange Than Blue alumnus Matt Darriau has been a leading New York musician linking jazz and creative improvisation with Eastern European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern folk music. The Pachora quartet is one of Speed's primary vehicles for exploring this facet of his musical interests. In addition to Speed on clarinet, the band features Black on dumbek, drums, and percussion as well as Brad Shepik on Portuguese guitar and electric saz and Skuli Sverrisson on electric bass. Speed demonstrates his mastery of engaging folk-flavored clarinet lines on Pachora's lively and groove-based tunes, which are rendered with a contemporary edge while retaining an old-world flavor. Pachora has released three Knitting Factory Records CDs in 1997, 1998, and 1999. Ast, the third of these recordings, is the band's strongest statement to date and is particularly worth seeking out.
While Speed is certainly a driving force among four strong artistic personalities in Pachora, he is most definitely the man in charge of yeah NO, the quartet that perhaps best displays the range of his musical vision. Speed plays both tenor saxophone and clarinet with the group, which also features trumpeter Cuong Vu (like Speed a former Seattlite who attended the New England Conservatory and performed with Orange Then Blue). Rounding out the foursome is Sverrisson on bass and, as anticipated, Jim Black on drums. While Eastern European folk melodies and rhythms are present in the music of yeah NO, these influences are in no way treated as a stylistic limitation. Rather, the folk elements are just one part of a broader palette encompassing sharply focused and sometimes quite lyrical creative jazz compositions, four-way collective improvisations, and explorations of ambiance and texture. Like Human Feel which preceded it, yeah NO often subverts the standard relationships between front line and rhythm section. Any of the four members, in any combination, might lock together or break apart, shift from the background to the foreground, or move from soloist to accompanist mode. The quartet's approach is full of surprises, and certainly promotes active listening. The stylistic similarities between mid-'90s Human Feel and the later yeah NO may be seen as largely attributable to the presence of Speed and Black in both bands. But it is interesting to note that the two quartets also have a link in Sverrisson; the future yeah NO bassist coproduced Speak To It, the final Human Feel CD released by the Songlines label in 1996. Songlines has issued three CDs thus far by Chris Speed and the yeah NO band, the first titled simply Yeah No in 1997, followed by Deviantics in 1999 and Emit in 2000.
One of Speed's most recent projects on CD is the Iffy trio including keyboardist Jamie Saft and drummer Ben Perowsky. This is an often hard-swinging unit featuring some of Speed's most robust clarinet and tenor work, along with incendiary Hammond organ support from Saft and splashy drumming from Perowsky (who is more conventionally "jazzy" than the tightly coiled bundle of percussive energy Jim Black). The trio's eponymously named CD, released on Knitting Factory Records in 2000, is a good place to begin listening to Speed for those unfamiliar with his earlier output. The reedman's edgy and adventurous approach is definitely present, but so are touchstones to somewhat more traditional and mainstream elements of post-bop, soul jazz, and groove jazz.
While busy with his solo career, Speed has continued to appear as sideman in groups fronted by Mark Dresser, James Emery, and Ben Perowsky. He also remains an ongoing member of the Dave Douglas Sextet, appearing most recently on Soul on Soul, Douglas' highly acclaimed Mary Lou Williams tribute CD released in 2000 by RCA Victor. Speed also performed in the premiere of Douglas' Witness large-ensemble project at the New York club Tonic in July 2000. Speed is also a part of "The Claudia Quintet" ensemble formed by composer and percussionist John Hollenbeck. The group features John Hollenbeck on percussion and all compositions, Drew Gress on bass, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Ted Reichman on accordian, and Speed on clarinet and tenor saxophone. The quintet is increasing in popularity most notably because of its unique, fresh sound and style that can really only be summed up by: the compositional form of jazz big bands with smaller solo sections, the poly-rhythmic grooves of eclectic world music, the interweaving polyphonic melody style of dixieland, the repetitive unfolding nature of 20th century minimalism, the "theme and variation" or "musical cell" aspect of classical, finally topped off with a highly contrasting harmonic density sealed with a unique timbre due to its "non-traditional" instrumentation. Currently, The Claudia Quintet has released four albums and all are exemplary of Speed's sonic and technical fluency in any style and idiom.
Chris Speed's artistic success as both bandleader and sideman is due at least in part to his willingness to step out of the spotlight and give his collaborators plenty of room to express themselves. Speed is a compelling soloist; he possesses a lovely round tone on the clarinet and his wailing tenor can be powerful at even quiet volumes. He also employs a wide range of extended techniques on both his horns, and is highly imaginative in discovering new textures and timbres to explore. Yet even in groups he leads, Speed surrounds himself with musicians whose styles often command equal if not greater attention than his own. It is a measure of Speed's maturity as an artist that he avoids personal grandstanding and brings out the best in his bandmates. Speed remains focused on the sound of the group as a whole, and how all the players can contribute to a unique collective statement.
by Dave Lynch