Martin Speake on musical education, connection with Ethan Iverson, and appreciation for Indian classical music

For the celebrated saxophonist and composer Martin Speake, musical development is a lifelong journey. His journey thus far has been one of study, travel, listening and helpings of good fortune, all of which have shaped him into “one of the most interesting and rewarding alto saxophonists now playing jazz on any continent” according to Jazz Times’ Thomas Conrad. Ahead of his return to Band on the Wall in February, leading an international quartet featuring pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Calum Gorlay, and drummer Jorge Rossy, we had the pleasure of speaking to Martin about his introduction to his instrument, relationship with the aforementioned players, and what keeps him focussed on his practice at this stage in his career.


“My mum used to play a lot of records,” Speake explains, addressing how music and the saxophone first became an interest to him. “I suppose mainly jazz: like Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson…I remember a Stephane Grappelli album, Joe Pass, these kinds of things as a child.” While jazz was a presence in his household, other family members introduced him to everything from Elgar to The Beatles, and it wasn’t until a guitar-playing school friend became interested in jazz music that the bug truly bit him.  


“I don’t know what triggered it,” Speake recalls, “but I remember one of the first albums I heard was Ornette Coleman’s Live at the Golden Circle, and he had a white plastic alto saxophone, which Charlie Parker also used briefly in the fifties.” The album left such a mark on then 16-year-old Speake, that he purchased an identical sax being advertised in Melody Maker, paying what would’ve amounted to three or four week’s worth of wages at his office job of the time. Sadly, to Speake’s dismay: “I was completely ripped off!” Upon finding a teacher and taking the sax to him, he was told that it was unplayable, and that the parts needed to repair it couldn’t be sourced. The heartbroken teenager was thankfully rescued by his mum, who replaced the unplayable instrument with a Buescher alto saxophone, getting him back on track.


Despite not connecting with music tuition at school, due to what he felt was a “rigid” classical curriculum, his guitarist friend encouraged him to join him on a music course at Southgate technical college in north London. “I have to say, the music teacher there was amazing, because he taught me music theory up to Grade 5, which you needed to get in in those days — I didn’t know any theory at all — in his own time, once a week. So, I’m really grateful to him.” Despite having only been playing for a few months, Speake was soaking up plenty of music, and with the theoretical foundations under his belt, could begin to make up his comparatively late start. 


From Southgate, he went to Trinity College of Music in London, now Trinity Laban conservatoire, believing only to have been accepted because teacher Chris Gradwell, himself a clarinet player, didn’t have any saxophone students. “If I was competing against violin players at that stage, for instance, I wouldn’t have gotten in,” Speake exclaims. “I’d only been playing for two years.” While the course was again a classical one, he believes that it was invaluable for his technique, as well as helping him to form the appreciation for classical music that he maintains today.


Now, decades on from his graduation, Trinity Laban is one of the institutions that Speake teaches at. He believes that the introduction of jazz courses to institutions with long classical histories has certainly helped the number of jazz players active today. “I still think it’s an underground music,” Speake declares, “but, it’s in the academic world.” Reflecting upon jazz tuition, Speake suggests that a balance between great education and self-discovery is essential to the development of strong musicians. 


Taking into account his own experience and his many interviews with jazz musicians from generations older than his, he determines that, “Students basically know what to practice now. If they want to get better, they know what to practice. There’s good and bad to that: it gets them there quicker, technically, but actually, my generation — which I believe is the last generation that were self-taught —  there’s something about that. It took me longer, I think, and it’s still a lifelong journey of course, but I think there’s something about just really finding it for yourself that’s really important. It’s just a balance.”


A key element of Speake’s lifelong journey has been his collaboration with Indian musicians and interaction with Hindustani classical music. Three musicians in particular: sitar player Dharambir Singh, tabla player Sarvar Sabri, and vocalist R. A. Ramamani have been important to his discoveries in the style. Referring to meeting Singh and Sabri in the mid-eighties, Speake explains, “I really hit it off with them. I’d been listening to Indian music for years, on and off. I think a lot of jazz musicians do, because of its improvisation. In a way, it’s similar: there’s no harmony in it, but there’s a vocabulary to it…rhythmically very advanced and melodically inventive. There are a lot of connections, I was always intrigued by it. I love the rhythmic cycles of it, I love the meditative feeling of it.” 


Having released the 2004 album The Journey with Singh and Sabri, alongside performances in London, Rome and further afield, Speake hopes once again work within the Indian classical idiom, namely with Ramamani. Having met the vocalist on a trip to India some 20 years ago, he has since performed her work with his group Charukesi, and is keen to work with her directly. “She writes these amazing tunes and is really used to collaborating with jazz musicians,” Speake explains, “I’ve been talking with her and her son, who plays percussion, over email to get something happening, and maybe it will one day!” 


Another musician who, like R. A. Ramamani, Speake met travelling abroad and rekindled a friendship with years later is the pianist Ethan Iverson. The pair met in 1990 during a summer course at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, run by saxophonist Steve Coleman. “I always thought he was special,” Speake says of Iverson. “We got on together and played a little bit there — we might even have done a recording, I can’t remember — then he wrote to me after, which was really nice, and we kept in touch. Then it just faded away as things do.” 


Iverson, just seventeen at the time, went on to work with the Mark Morris Dance Company in Brooklyn, and upon their trip to London a decade on from Speake and Iversons first meeting, they were able to reconvene, playing and recording together ahead of a duo tour and resultant standards album, My Ideal. While Iverson’s time with The Bad Plus put pay to Speake’s ambitions in the early 2000s, he has made up for lost time in recent years: this forthcoming international quartet tour marking the second time he and Iverson have toured together in 3 years. “I’ve managed to nab him again!” Speake exclaims. “Hopefully we’ll record on this tour, I think it’d be nice to document this particular line-up.”


The line-up in question features bassist Calum Gourlay, who Speake first met when teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, and Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy, who has collaborated with Iverson many times. It is these deep connections within the quartet that really excited Speake. “These connections feel like they have a lot of depth. That’s what I like: I love playing with people for a long time. Some of my favourite bands are like that, like Keith Jarrett’s trio — he’s been with those musicians for about 30 years. It’s good to have new collaborations as well, but we can deepen it each time.”

Aside from the quartet, Speake’s path as a player and teacher continues. “I don’t know whether I totally keep my focus,” he jokes, “but I’m always learning. What really helps is when I start studying different artists really deeply. In 2005, I studied Charlie Parker a lot, as it was 50 years since his death. I’m doing so again now, as it’s 100 years this year since he was born. I think that’s the thing for me: always going back to the past.” Speake recalls a quote from the guitarist Pat Metheny, suggesting that for every hour he spends working out what revered guitarist Wes Montgomery was doing, he spent another four working out how to integrate what he had uncovered into his playing. 

“I think that’s what I’m trying to do a lot,” Speake suggests. “Charlie Parker’s one example, it could be someone else, people before him. So much has already been done. Studying Charlie Parker’s music, I’d always been obsessed with a particular phrase, thinking ‘where did he get that phrase? I’ve never heard anything like it.’ Steve Coleman, who I mentioned earlier, said, ‘yeh, Johnny Hodges played that phrase in the thirties!’ So, all these great players, they get something from somebody before, and then they integrate it into their own music in a different way, and it sounds like theirs. It’s pretty much what everyone does, whatever they say! It’s a good question, trying to keep focus, which is pretty hard in this world actually, but it’s from learning from the past all the time and integrating it into the present.”