For many, introductions to the band Speak came with last April's Andrew D'Angelo benefit concert at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Sheperd Center. Concluding a night of emotional performances from Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Cuong Vu, Robin Holcomb, and Eyvind Kang, the band, then billed as Cuong Vu's University of Washington Student Ensemble, was one of the evening's great surprises.
Speak's sprawling and unpredictable performance featured complex compositions, spirited improvisations, and a genuine reverence for D'Angelo. (And in many ways, it made perfect sense that a benefit for the saxophonist, a Seattle native and graduate of Roosevelt High School, would feature a young, closely knit, and enormously promising band of fellow Seattle natives.) The performance would later be remembered as a turning point for Speak, marking Vu's arrival as a regular performing partner and peer. Yet it surely also marked the arrival of a new generation of committed, thoughtful, and immensely talented young improvisers on Seattle's creative arts scene.
Comprised of pianist Aaron Otheim, bassist Luke Bergman, percussionist Chris Icasiano, saxophonist Andrew Swanson, and trumpeter Vu, Speak was born in the idyllic environment of the UW music building's sub-sub-basement. Otheim, Bergman, Swanson, and Icasiano were long acquainted within the UW jazz program, and early on they understood that they were to eventually form a band. Their first efforts playing together in early 2007 happened to coincide with Vu's return to Seattle and arrival as a UW faculty member. Vu was assigned to coach the ensemble, forging a creative relationship that few could have predicted.
More straight-ahead and swinging than you might hear them today, the band in its early stages lacked a clear musical focus. Under Vu's mentorship, however, Speak began to develop a cohesive and unique identity. As Chris
Icasiano explains, "Cuong brought with him his experience with his own trio and the Pat Metheny Group, both of which are bands with very distinct sounds. This certainly encouraged us to start developing our collective sound and honing our own musical approach."
To demonstrate both the universality of music and the illusory nature of idiomatic categorizations, Vu presented to the ensemble a combination of folk musics from other cultures and more extreme western forms. The danger, Vu stressed, was that if taken to heart, these imaginary boundaries between styles become "restrictive and unbreakable creative barriers."
As Vu recalls of their first meetings, "one of the first things that struck me about the band was their open mindedness to the ideas and concepts that I brought to the table, as well as the spirit and commitment with which they attacked these musical approaches and problems that I presented." Vu was also struck by the sheer talent of his students (whom he now considers "on par with some of the most talented people that I've come across in my career"), as well as how quickly and thoroughly they absorbed and applied the ideas and theories which he introduced. In this sympathetic context, Speak soon grew into an energizing creative outlet through which each individual member could express his diverse interests on common ground.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of Speak has been their ability to enrich the music with elements from a wide variety of stylistic forms. As Otheim notes: "Chris is really the only one of us who studied jazz from the ground up [Keith Jarrett at age nine, parents take note!], as Luke and Andrew grew up playing in rock bands, and I studied classical piano until my second year of college. Jazz informs our music tremendously," Otheim adds, "and it's what brought us together at UW. But naturally, it's not the only kind of music that has any meaning or relevance to us."
As much is clear in Speak's sound. I was fortunate enough to see Speak perform in late May at the University Presbyterian Church, presented as part of the terrific Improvised Music Project Festival. Since I had last seen the band, Bergman had left behind his stand-up bass, and for once, it isn't missed. His sumptuous electric lines utilize just the right amounts of delay and distortion, and Bergman seems to have a particular gift for adding flashes of color while remaining a true foundation of the ensemble.
Bergman's tune "People or Cats" opened the performance, his leading bass line equally suited to introduce a Mogwai show. As Icasiano's cymbal work built momentum, and a long, winding horn line is introduced, the music began to unfold from within. Otheim's piano here doubling Bergman's line, here filling the space with bright and propulsive counterpoint. A pleasing combination of circular movement and linear development, shade and light, structure and stretch, came to define the music.
Vu and Swanson rose to the top of the ensemble, pushing awesome walls of sound through every region of the sanctuary. Their improvisation, spurred by Vu's thunderous electronics, is a thing to behold. Large as the sanctuary was, one gets the impression its frame was pushed out several inches simply to accommodate the sound within. Perhaps also due to the high ceilings of the room, the band nevertheless achieved a novel effect, as the horns seemed to push their sound to the audience from above.
These massive waves struck the audience with terrific force, at times receding enough to allow individual ideas to emerge, which in turn re-defined their very surroundings. Meanwhile, the rhythm players stretched the ground below in several different, increasingly complicated directions, achieving a remarkable depth of sound, and reaching something resembling a breaking point. Only instead, from the wash of sound, the melody emerged
again in dramatic fashion, Swanson and Vu leading the ensemble back to the structure they had so wondrously left behind.
Throughout the evening's performance, it became increasingly clear that the ensemble moves, grows, and shifts as if one single organism, re-shaping its very nature in real-time. Fine as the individual performances are, no one
soloist dominates the music. Indeed, the band's musical identity might best be understood within the context of its compositions ? vast and thoughtful arrangements with plenty of twists.
Speak's unconventional approach to composition and form evolved out of the band's group dynamic and the individual personalities of its members. According to Otheim: "The attention paid to ?structure' or written parts in our music is comparable to that found in big band charts, in which the writing serves not only to link improvised sections together but also to effectively fashion the sound of the band. Duke Ellington once referred to his band members as ?sound identities;' he became familiar with their musical personalities and wrote for his band in a way that suited them. We try to write music for Speak in a way that suits our musical personalities."
To the ensemble, Vu has particularly stressed the importance of writing in areas outside their comfort and familiarity. For him, "when you deal with the unfamiliar, that's when the awareness and focus needs to be at the highest level and that's where the problem solving and understanding starts to really happen in a profound way." Speak has certainly taken this to heart, as Otheim notes, "although we all love jazz, we recognize that there are
many other sound possibilities out there that are just as moving to us and to our peers. We've chosen to embrace and explore some of these sound possibilities in the music of Speak."
This approach allows Speak to express without restraint their passions for electronic music, free improvisation, heavy metal, and contemporary classical music, to name only a few. But to what extent does this place Speak on the periphery of the jazz tradition? Swanson, for one, believes that despite the obvious stylistic intersection, "it wouldn't necessarily be appropriate for us to perform in the traditional Seattle jazz venues or alongside members of the Seattle jazz community, because for the most part, we aren't really a jazz band [...] I'd like to believe that it is possible to have improvisational music that is not jazz, and I think that's the direction in which Speak is heading." The saxophonist then adds, however, "I guess it just depends on whether our music is heard as a continuation of the jazz idiom, or as something different, though with similar and even corresponding musical elements."
Vu, on the other hand, perceives the ensemble to be actively "contributing to the jazz lineage by infusing it with aesthetics borrowed from all kinds of different music on the cutting edge." Without examining the raucous debate of jazz's boundaries that has long surrounded the music, it certainly does appear that Speak is able to transcend these boundaries, incorporating a wide variety of stylistic influences in a single performance. Compositions such as Swanson's "Mustard Knuckles," perhaps destined to be the crossover hit of 2010, certainly indicate that the walls separating these areas of creative music are not what they once seemed.
On a purely superficial level, of course, the band does defy some traditional jazz conventions. Certainly Speak is a good deal harrier than what you might anticipate. Bergman's beard, for one thing, has by now grown to Gimli son of Glóin proportions. But as an enthusiastically scraggly Aaron Otheim notes, "as long as the photos aren't scratch-and-sniff, it shouldn't be a concern." Song titles such as "Pure Hatred," meanwhile, seem to suggest less the Ellingtonian than the Meshuggahian tradition.
Nevertheless, Speak has found some institutional support in the Seattle jazz community. Speak was nominated as the 2008 Northwest Outside Jazz Group of the Year at Earshot's Golden Ear Awards, and has earned spots in the Ballard Jazz Festival and Gene Harris Jazz Festival. (At the Ballard Jazz Walk "the band sounded so good that that's when I started to seriously entertain the idea that I could work with these guys and develop something serious with them," Vu explains.)
Still, the band has found that there is not yet a strong support network for young emerging jazz ensembles. Vu laments that despite it's pioneering attitude, Seattle, on a popular level, simply does not provide for its talented, forward-looking artists. And "Why?" Vu asks, "Are people scared to be challenged in Seattle? Or are they just lazy and need to go home to their TV shows, or video games. Or would they just rather go boating or skiing instead of checking out some things that are good for the human soul?"
The UW-affiliated student group the Improvised Music Project is working hard to set up a network for young musicians and to broadly increase awareness of their music and activities. Yet organizational support, from IMP or from Earshot, can only go part- way. Introducing the ensemble at the Andrew D'Angelo benefit, Vu noted that it is critical to the health of music and art in Seattle for talented young artists to remain in the city ? as opposed to moving to New York, for example. "The young people are the ones with the energy and drive to make Seattle an important player, instead of being a second rate arts and music city," states Vu. And yet, "if they are going to stay and succeed, they need the older generation to help."
Or in other words, Speak has the goods, but they need our support too.