There goes Chris Speed again, hogging the spotlight and never giving his bandmates any opportunities to shine. The preceding remark is intended as a joke. In actuality, Speed might be one of the least ego-driven jazzers around today, and if one measure of greatness in a creative musician is a demonstrated ability to bring out the best in his or her collaborators and unite them in a singular artistic conception, then Speed is indeed one helluva great creative musician. In fact, on Swell Henry, Speed's fourth CD leading his yeah NO quartet, the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist seems to have been fully absorbed into the band as a member equal to the others, although he wrote or co-wrote all but one of the recording's ten tracks. His name doesn't even appear on the outside of the CD booklet or back tray card; Swell Henry is presented as a recording by a group called yeah NO -- check inside for details on the personnel, please. And yet Speed's artistic persona comes through with full force, strength, and assurance on this release, even as the reedman steadfastly refuses to relegate his sidemen to the role of, well, mere sidemen. Speed's yeah NO bandmates -- bassist Skuli Sverrisson, drummer Jim Black, and trumpeter Cuong Vu -- are more akin to full partners in sculpting the group's overall sound, and are as committed to that sound as Speed himself. In fact, these days the likeminded musicians of yeah NO seem to be moving a bit closer to the sonics and spirit of Pachora, the Balkan/Mediterranean-themed quartet that also features Speed, Black, and Sverrisson. Pachora has no "leader" per se, and has continued to twist its traditional-inspired music into more forward-thinking shapes with each successive release. Meanwhile, the more open-formatted yeah NO appears to be headed in Pachora's direction, on Swell Henry often drawing inspiration from Balkan and Eastern European modes and combining the talents of all the participating musicians into a truly collaborative sound.
Given the uniformly high quality of the material here, it's nearly meaningless to single out highlights, but certainly deserving mention are "Last Beginning"'s slow and dramatic build to an anthemic, rockish bridge and solo tenor break; the freewheeling clarinet that dances over Black's crisply driving rhythm in "Born in the Air"; and the Speed/Vu spirited interplay over "Camper Giorno"'s mid-tempo vamp. Reminiscent of "Drifting" from Pachora's Astereotypical, the virtuosic Sverrisson's moody neo-classical "Cloud Stopper" further proves the bassist's skill as a composer of strikingly beautiful music. And the fiery quasi-fusion of "Flanked" and skittering free jazz of "He Has a Pair of Dice" are full-bodied demonstrations of the chops these guys possess. Throughout the disc, the plaintive and melancholy qualities of Speed's tenor phrasing and tone add both subtlety and emotional depth to even the most groove-oriented tunes, while Vu continues to perfect his explosive, distortion-laden crescendos. And adding warmth to the proceedings is the lovely accordion of guest Rob Burger on five tracks, while additional guest Jamie Saft contributes some Mellotron here and there that might have listeners of a certain age flashing back to Starless and Bible Black-era King Crimson, of all things. The CD booklet's industrial/mechanical schematic design art by karlssonwilker (also noted for those great John Hollenbeck CD packages with art printed directly on the plastic jewel cases) is pretty nifty, too, although its cool precision doesn't exactly convey the music's organic qualities.