While it was nice this past winter to take a moment, courtesy of Ken Burns and company, to savour the sounds of jazz history, there is no better argument for remaining open to new jazz sounds of than to hear releases from players like Chris Speed and his group, collectively known as Yeah No. These musicians, by remaining fresh and determined to introduce new ideas into an established tradition, work to dispel the myth that nothing is happening in jazz these days. Or the myth that jazz is no longer relevant. The fact is, despite being poorly promoted and distributed, being all but ignored by mainstream press, being limited in terms of live venues, each essentially an economic factor, jazz moves on.
Chris Speed and his group, Jim Black on drums, Skuli Sverrisson on bass and Cuong Vu on trumpet, are the foster children of John Zorn and the downtown New York jazz scene that centres around the experiment-friendly Knitting Factory. Most obviously influenced by eastern European song structures, rhythms and timbres, Speed’s Emit also brings together jazz-interpreted sounds of rock, dub, trance and fusion, along with probably a dozen other less obvious musical influences. But more than an exercise in genre manipulation or musical tourism, there is a unifying sensibility that makes the whole thing hang together and sound unique. What they do well is they swing as a unit from harmonic abstractions to super-groovy and back again, playing with gusto throughout.
More than any other player, it is Black on drums who steers the shifting rhythms and moods, hammering his kit at one moment then caressing it the next. While Sverrisson’s electric bass underlines the emphatic groove throughout, it is the horn players that are given the most room to stretch out. In doing so the two compliment each other, especially when Speed is on saxophone where his more hard-blowing and rough-edged approach sets off the sweeter, more melodic Vu.
Highlights here include the opener “Constance and Georgia”, a fitting introduction to the elements that will be juggled by the band throughout. Starting with paired horns and Black slamming out the off beat, the tune sets into a slinky Sverrisson bass line, before the whole thing is taken apart and reassembled to great effect. The atmospheric “Waltzing” is the most atypical offering, with the bass becoming electronic drones and Black tinkering on percussion over the horns’ held notes. The most traditional of the tunes included here, the Monk-like “Tangents”, ironically offers Sverrisson’s most experimental moment with his bass line’s subtle tonal changes becoming something out of a minimalist’s songbook.
It has been shown again and again that allowing new influences, new rhythms and new textures into jazz doesn’t dilute a proud tradition, but rather it keeps it alive and fresh. The vigour of this new Chris Speed release, its combination of new ideas and focused energy, should help to give those who worry about the sustainability of jazz hope for its ability to stay fresh and relevant.