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Free-Form Folk 

In Chris Speed's world, traditional European sounds lounge with improvisational jazz.

Downtown jazz with a Bulgarian bent, the specialty of Yeah No.
  • Downtown jazz with a Bulgarian bent, the specialty of Yeah No.
For its "New Century in Jazz" March issue, JazzTimes interviewed Wynton Marsalis and John Zorn -- two jazz icons from either end of the improvisational spectrum -- on the same subject: the future of jazz. When asked for their thoughts, both musicians made a few statements that might raise a few eyebrows. But against expectations, the two had surprisingly little negative to say about each other (Zorn even raved about a recent Marsalis solo effort he'd heard) or the disparate musical philosophies for which they stand.

Rather than mapping out a nasty clash in ideology, the paired interviews helped draw a poignant contrast between two musical philosophies -- two ways of perceiving and drawing from the jazz tradition that may very well characterize jazz in the future. A whole movement of musicians is starting to forward the notion that an endless solo over weak and tired chord progressions is not where it's at. Hence, Marsalis types look back to more structured ancestors like Ellington. But for those in the Zorn camp, jazz is not so much a tradition to be traced or a genre to be defined as it is a strategy, a philosophy, a way of thinking. Hanging at the Zorn end of the spectrum is Chris Speed.

"I definitely think more along the lines of the way Zorn thinks," says the saxophonist/clarinetist. "I've spent a lot of time learning jazz. I was vested for a long time. But I feel that, when I finally got out of the jazz dogma, I became a better musician. It enabled me to play jazz better now. I can view [jazz] as another idiom and not my whole repertoire."

Hipped to the Bulgarian Woman's Choir by a bandmate in the group Orange Then Blue, Speed initially got hooked on the Eastern European folk sound. Before he knew it, he was jamming to Bulgarian folk records set to half-speed, just as second-generation beboppers had with Lester Young and Charlie Parker records.

"I've really immersed myself in folk music from Eastern Europe, gypsy music from Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece," he says. "It sort of relieved me from listening to so much jazz. It inspired me to play the clarinet again, and the more I studied that music, the more it opened doors to other music. [Jazz is] something that I respect, but it's just one aspect of playing. Certainly, the concept of improvising is probably the strongest [aspect], but that's not just inherent to jazz. You can improvise in any genre."

A downtown regular, Speed has played sideman to any number of notable New York musicians in this exploratory mindset, including pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and saxophonist Tim Berne. In the last few years, however, Speed's profile has been on the rise. He's formed two bands as outlets for his own music, an appropriately idiosyncratic meeting of his home turf avant-garde sound with varying degrees of his Mediterranean folk leanings.

Speed had been transcribing the Bulgarian folk music from recordings and, itching for a group to play his transcriptions, he formed the first of these bands, Pachora, with guitarist and assorted string-instrument player Brad Shepik. Though the band sticks fairly closely to the sound of an actual folk outfit, it inevitably comes from a jazz perspective, and it shows.

"I wasn't trying to sound like a Greek clarinetist," Speed says. "I try to emulate [players in that idiom], but still try to develop my own sound. With Pachora, the parameters are a little tighter. We can acknowledge that we're not a Balkan band, but that that's the influence. This is a Greek Syrto, this is a Bulgarian Paidushko -- we can write tunes with those parameters, and then we'll improvise like downtown musicians or whatever we are."

Speed not only put in his time with the recordings; he also took in live music and culture in Bulgaria. He studied with a folk musician there and even attended a Bulgarian wedding. The music exposure has not only helped Speed bring a jazz aesthetic to Eurofolk, it's also exposed him to new strategies handy for improvisation.

"What I get out of the folk music is a simple melodic sense plus a complex rhythmic sense," Speed says. "It's the challenge of trying to learn to improvise in these odd meters that are second nature to [folk musicians]. Musicians have been doing it in jazz, but not the same way. They [break it down into] twos and threes, where we're really trying to think in these different meters, different drones."

Speed's other band, the raucous Yeah No, stands in contrast to the mostly respectful Pachora. Some of the folk influence remains, but this band -- Speed's personal music lab -- also taps plenty of free jazz polyphony and electronic dance sputter and jump. In large part, the sound has as much to do with the contributions of his band members as it does with Speed's own input. Inspired by the bandleading example set by Tim Berne (Speed played in Berne's band, Bloodcount), Speed is prone to picking empathetic, creative musicians, treating them as equals, and letting the music-making happen.

It's only after repeated exposure to the band -- only once its plaintive drones and wild free folk passages, elastic electronic and resonant acoustic textures have been absorbed -- that you realize how incongruous and even corny all this music could have been in another's hands. Speed and company make this mongrel music sound organic and completely right.

"That's been the biggest challenge for me," says Speed. "Where to draw the line in bringing these things together without people thinking, "Oh, it sounds like they're improvising over a drum 'n' bass groove,' or "It sounds like they're trying to sound like a Bulgarian folk band.' I'm trying to morph these influences into something unique. I can respect what Wynton [Marsalis] does. But I'm not interested in keeping music pure. I'm the type of person who wants to keep moving forward. For me, it's about using [existing] music to create something else."

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