There is a small, specialized jazz niche that has long been intriguing. It happens when outside players (often saxophonists, and often as they age) decide to come in from the cold and adopt a more traditional approach. David Murray, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and, more recently, Jon Irabagon are a few examples. Chris Speed has been active on the left-of-center scene since the early 1990s, in formidable bands like Human Feel and Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. With Platinum on Tap, he is uncharacteristically mellow, melodic and patient. The opening track, “Red Hook Nights,” is an original (like all but two tunes), but it could be a standard. It sounds a little like “In a Sentimental Mood.” Speed’s tone is light. He renders the song slowly. You hear his hesitant breath in his tenor saxophone reed. Yet within the quietude there is a certain suspense, a tension, and that is why this specialized jazz niche is interesting. When outcats behave themselves, you keep waiting for them to bust loose.
Speed never quite does, although there are edgier, more intense tracks. On “Arrival High,” “Crossface Cradle” and “Crooked Teeth,” his ideas proceed by free association, in streaming, self-perpetuating continuums. If he had wanted to come all the way inside, Speed would not have used the most stark and open and chordless of formats, the saxophone trio. (Dave King, a uniquely charismatic drummer, functions as a co-soloist throughout this album.) And he would not have chosen to play an Albert Ayler piece, “Spirits,” a harsh, dissonant fanfare.
Still, he plays “Stardust.” He begins in the middle of that famously idiosyncratic melody, acknowledges it, and then carefully pursues its distant implications. His understated, measured, fragmented version could only come from someone on the outside looking in. It takes nerve to rewrite “Stardust.”
Preview, buy or download songs from the album Platinum on Tap by the Chris Speed Trio on iTunes.