Chris Speed

Yeah No

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After making able contributions to ensembles led by the likes of Tim Berne, Myra Melford, and Dave Douglas, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed stepped out for the first time as leader of his own band on this 1997 Songlines release. Yeah No is the name of the CD, and it's also the name of the quartet -- including drummer Jim Black, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and bassist Skuli Sverrisson -- that made its recorded debut here. Unlike many fire-breathing tenors of the free jazz school, Speed is passionate but avoids histrionics, while his clarinet (featured only on the track "Finale") is plaintive and delicate yet can break into rough squeals and dissonance as appropriate to the musical surroundings. Overall, Yeah No is darker in mood than the comparatively sprightly releases of the Pachora quartet and less rockish than Jim Black's AlasNoAxis debut. (The Pachora and Black CDs also feature Speed, Black, and Sverrisson.) Structured thematic material is sometimes juxtaposed against abstract soundscapes that form an unsettling backdrop to scored passages and can even become dominant, replacing the parts of tunes where -- if this were conventional jazz -- one might expect solos to occur. The East-meets-West "Merge" can be compared to Pachora material but is heavier and harder, while tenor and muted trumpet sketch long lines across a background of electrified drones and overtones from Sverrisson and sometimes spooky percussive embellishments from Black in "The Dream and Memory Store." "Nap Clarity" is equal parts lovely, ruminative ballad and freely improvised exploration of space, sound, and texture; the band tears apart a 6/8 rhythm in the driving "Planing" and ends the tune on a note of dissolution, seeming to embody the very concept of "yeah no." The ears-open interplay among the bandmembers is striking throughout: Speed and Vu form a perfectly complementary front line, Speed and Black are as simpatico as a reedman and drummer can get, and Sverrisson and Black prove to be one of the most sonically advanced bass-drums teams in creative music. Steering clear of easy formulas, Chris Speed's quartet proved to be one of the strongest working bands to emerge from the New York downtown scene in the late '90s, and Yeah No was an auspicious debut for the group, followed by even stronger releases during the next few years.

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