Over the years, Chris Speed has led or appeared on a diverse array of creative jazz recordings, but nothing quite like his 2014 album Really OK, the 24th release on the saxophonist and clarinetist's Skirl label. Really OK finds the Brooklyn-based reedman -- playing tenor saxophone exclusively -- putting his inimitable stamp on the classic sax-bass-drums trio form pioneered by Sonny Rollins in the late '50s and given additional singular focus by Joe Henderson decades later in the mid-'80s. On tenor, Speed is a soulful, expressive player, with a grainy tone sometimes rising into multiphonics yet also retaining a sense of understatement. Whether subtle or assertive, the saxophonist is backed with nimble intuitiveness here by drummer Dave King (the Bad Plus) and acoustic bassist Chris Tordini (Claudia Quintet). The trio reaches as far back as the well-worn standard "All of Me," with its melody first approached tentatively, even diffidently, before the musicians settle in for a relaxed take that is extended ever so slightly beyond the comfort zone by interludes of abrupt phrasing from Speed and -- after a nicely thematic feature for Tordini -- unaccompanied tumbling drumwork from King. The album's other two non-originals are more uptempo, angular numbers, Ornette Coleman's "Round Trip" and the closer, John Coltrane's "26-2" (neither of which, incidentally, were recorded by trios in their original versions). While the latter ends the album on a note of rollicking swing and stamina, Speed's approach to the former maintains a certain offhanded quality as he fragments and reconfigures the melody during his solo, providing space for King to insert accents and fills -- if Speed were a pianist on a number like this, perhaps he'd be Misha Mengelberg. And speaking of musicians who by definition never appear in piano-less trios, at times the spacious propulsiveness and incantatory wail of Speed's original "Takedown" recall classic mid-'60s Coltrane strongly enough that one half-expects McCoy Tyner to make a harmonically expansive entrance. Really OK is, in fact, dominated by six Speed originals, all of a piece with his approach to the three covers. From the opening title track onward, Speed's tunes -- from boppishly upbeat ("Argento") to folkish ("Tamborino") -- are strong enough to withstand all manner of extrapolation, pulled in one direction or another and never losing the thread. The seven-plus-minute "Delaware" is an outlier of sorts here, building deliberately to a powerful, near rockish finale (with shades of Jim Black's AlasNoAxis) as the saxophonist repeats an urgent, anthemic motif. Since his arrival in N.Y.C. in 1992, Speed has explored modern creative jazz, Balkan folk-jazz, indie jazz-rock, textural improvisation, and more, but stretching swing and melody in a classic sax-bass-drums lineup is a new element in his oeuvre. The territory Chris Speed stakes out here might be a changeup for him, but Really OK proves he's more than up to the task.
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AllMusic Review by Dave Lynch