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Ben Perowsky/John Medeski/Chris Speed: Upstream (Self-released)

A review of the trio album from the drummer, organist, and saxophonist

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Ben Perowsky/John Medeski/Chris Speed: Upstream
The cover of Upstream by Ben Perowsky/John Medeski/Chris Speed

I met Chris Speed in my ancient youth, in a summer jazz program—he among the best, me among the worst. Even then, things came easily to him. I asked him once how to render the altissimo range on saxophone. “You just bite,” he said with a shake of his head. Well, it was probably more complicated than that. But not to him. I gave up the horn; he proudly and rightly took up several.

Upstream, a session with organist John Medeski and drummer Ben Perowsky, doesn’t find Speed howling at the moon as he often does in his NYC-centric work. It’s a subtle set to reward the long ear. Speed’s sticking mostly to tenor and also sticking close to the other two musicians, while fishing out variances in timbre, attack, and volume.

You won’t necessarily know “Paul” is for Motian, with a side order of McCartney thrown in, unless you read it online. But it lines up with Motian’s wry sense of humor, Perowsky matching Speed on subtle but varied emphases (even if no one can quite match Motian’s genius for converting any beat into space poetry). Wayne Shorter’s “Face on the Barroom Floor” finds Speed on clarinet, Medeski softly fooming chord clouds through the middle. Miles’ “Sidecar” finds the organist more jittery, in line with Perowsky’s nervous snare. Speed waits his turn, then slides in between notes, anodyne to the staccato.

I wished for more screeching and pounding, but that’s just me. This is three men relaxing in each other’s company, affirming simple but powerful things that we ought to take for granted but can’t, especially today. Freedom of association. Freedom to take delight in others, enrich others, take wisdom from others. Hell—free jazz.

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