Seattle-based quintet Speak is an asymmetric outfit, the only previously well-known member being trumpeter Cuong Vu (who has collaborated with Pat Metheny). The rest of the ensemble is comprised of Vu’s students, met at the University of Washington.
Speak, strong with the boldness that comes of youth, are unapologetic from the start. Opener Amalgam in the Middle is a stylistic manifesto, displaying straight away their signature recipe of unrepentant noise, chromatic prog- and post-rock quotations, free-jazz detours and an emotional urgency that is likely to rock your boat throughout.
This is a marathon album, despite running for only 45 minutes; a dense, fast meteorite on an edgy sky, brief enough to be indulged in all its frowning intensity. Throughout, Speak build huge constructs of volumes and dynamics. The music never sits still; it’s a snake that twists and turns in the juxtaposition of noise and quietness, light and darkness. Yet the band is tremendously cohesive, shifting as one from heavy improvisational territories down to eloquent writing with a message of unresolved tension. There isn’t a recognisable soloist; the structure is always at the core, with each musician skilfully contributing to the edifice. Indefatigable, Luke Bergman on bass and Chris Icasiano on drums are as much centre stage as Vu’s reverb-laden trumpet or Andrew Swanson’s muscular saxophone.
As a rule here, when you get to the point where there is only so much more noise you can humanly take, that’s when Speak resolve into uplifting chords providing respite. Take for example pianist Aaron Otheim’s insistent seven-beat opening in Polypockets: it hammers you down with its relentless uneven pace, the track ending with a stormy nebula of free improvisations and close-ranked charges. Conversely the next track, Mustard Knuckles, opens with the sweetest, most lyrical piano: calm after the storm.
Jazz is the catalyst for the action and its openness allows all the quoted genres to make sense of each other in an original fusion – banking on the terrific musicianship of all involved. Speak is a rocket ride of outstanding quality.