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Chris Speed: Emit

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Chris Speed’s among the better saxophonists toiling in what’s usually labeled outside or avant-garde music. Speed doesn’t owe as much to Albert Ayler as some contemporaries. He doesn’t boast a huge tone, and there’s as much precision as passion in his phrasing. While there’s power and depth to his solos, Speed normally avoids hard bop and the blues/ballad/showtune menu traditionalists consider essential to being a jazz musician. Instead, he’s a fine improviser whose skills are the best thing evident on his current CD Emit. Speed heads a group with an excellent percussionist in Jim Black and otherwise decent instrumentalists trumpeter Cuong Vu and bassist Skuli Sverrisson.

What’s missing from the set is thematic variety. The nine pieces are predominantly somber, slow developing works, keyed either by Speed’s bristling tenor or less exuberant clarinet. There’s absolutely no discernible swing influence in his clarinet style. Speed nicely navigates his way through the registers, never wavering or going out of tune in the highest passages. But anyone who enjoys either a woody sound or a buoyant, bouncy approach won’t hear it in Speed’s solos. His tenor’s more enjoyable. He plays the instrument with more energy and abandon.

Black’s brisk rhythmic underpinning enlivens tunes like “Waltzing” and “Kompa.” Vu and Sverrisson neither detract nor enrich the ongoing numbers. Sverrisson’s accompaniment is more engaging than his occasional solos, while Vu’s noodling, melodic counterpoint and support adequately fill the time between Speed’s entrances and exits. Still, they succeed in their primary duties, which are to assist Speed, the CD’s exemplary instrumental voice.

Folks who hate this style of jazz will latch on to the absence of propulsive, blues-drenched or infectious numbers as evidence that Speed’s another alienated, improvising fake. That would be a mistake. He’s already a first-rate talent, and has the most important ingredient necessary for success; his own sound. Now, all he needs is more balance and variety in his settings and compositions.