A good deal of excitement surrounded Speak in the year preceding the release of their self-titled debut. The quintet's growth has been fascinating to watch, and having now released an album commensurate with their talents, it would not be surprising for 2010 to be a big year for the ensemble.
Featuring saxophonist Andrew Swanson, trumpeter Cuong Vu, bassist Luke Bergman, keyboardist Aaron Otheim, and percussionist Chris Icasiano, Speak twists myriad influences into one unique and instantly recognizable whole. And though the band generally favors an aggressive, maximalist sound, the album is bound together by a sense of optimism and structured exploration.
With the exception of Cuong Vu, each member composes at least one of the album's six pieces. Taken together, the compositions are full of harmonic surprises and possess much internal momentum. In this sense they dominate the direction of the music far more than is traditionally associated with small-group jazz, resulting in performances of great focus and intensity. The compositions capture the strengths and personalities of the band, at times blurring the line between composition and improvisation.
The band seems to have enjoyed the opportunities afforded by the studio, overdubbing handclapping on "Polypockets" and harp on "People or Cats." Otheim's soaring Moog line early in the opening "Amalgam In The
Middle" is a terrific touch, and if it had always been part of the live performance, it is made all the more effective by the clarity of the studio recording. When the ensemble is at its best, as in Swanson's "Mustard Knuckles" and Bergman's "People Or Cats," there exists a disciplined balance among melodic beauty, atmospheric sensitivity, direction, and sheer intensity.
When improvising, Speak creates dense masses of overlapping harmony, rhythmic activity, and electronic
wash. The communication within the ensemble is at a consistently high level and is likely the result of a band with a shared commitment to rehearsal, aesthetic value, and one another. Swanson and Vu, both excellent players in their own right, make a formidable frontline and often elevate each other's game. The rhythm section, meanwhile, deftly moves in and out of its assigned roles and proves as muscular a combination as any, as in the wonderful and stormy trio section of "Mustard Knuckles." Firing away together, the band's power is a thing to behold.
Speak appears primed to make a run at local greatness, attracting interest from both the avant-jazz and noise
rock scenes. And if their debut is an imperfect album, it remains an ideal introduction to a truly original new voice.
Finally, a word on Kristian Garrard, who contributed the attractive album artwork and a memorable solo performance at the Speak CD release party. Bravo!