Chris Speed redefines jazz in the 21st century

Chris Speed with his tenor saxophone (Courtesy of Chris Speed)

Chris Speed has been playing since age 11. Here he is with his tenor saxophone (Courtesy of Chris Speed)

Jazz has been around since the late 19th century and since then has developed many genres that still find themselves in popular music today. Chris Speed and his bands Endangered Blood and Human Feel have worked to maintain this manner of playing in their jazz-rock style of music.

Born in Seattle in 1967, Speed has risen as a prominent member of the jazz community. His journey has allowed him to create twelve jazz albums and gotten him numerous gigs in places all around the country including New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Franciso, and Phoenix. 

“My first real experience with jazz was when I was about 16,” Speed said, “I started with a saxophone at 11 actually, then decided on the clarinet because it was said to be harder to master but would make playing the saxophone easier.”

His influences include Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins. However, some of his bigger inspirations came from his school experiences and bandmates Andrew D’Angelo and Jim Black. 

“Yeah, they really got me obsessed with just listening to old jazz and trying to imitate what the guys were doing” Speed said, “Till this day I’ll probably always have a soft spot for improvising over composing even though I do really love both.” 

Speed went to the New England Conservatory in Boston and graduated in 1990. There he met his future bandmates Black and  D’Angelo and they formed the band Human Feel with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. 

“The name came from partying in the Boston area and the vibe we got from playing there overall,” Speed said.

“Human Feel” was a basis for him and his bandmate’s future together. He stayed with the band until 1992 and then toured with the Artie Shaw Band playing the clarinet and saxophone and went to work with Tim Berne and his touring band Bloodcount.

Throughout the 1990’s Speed played with many different bands in New York, seeking to broaden his jazz appreciation and find music that the people would still find interesting today. This lead him to play with such groups as the Dave Douglas Sextet, Myra Melford’s Same River Twice, John Zorn, and Mark Dresser’s trio. 

These bands had a very common theme of experimenting with unique sounds. By 1999, Speed had joined Pachora which specializes in playing Southeastern European music from Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey. Specifically, the music is known as Balkan music which is jazz-based but experiments with complex melodies and rhythms which can be described as folk music.

His love for East European folk music began with the Slavic Soul Party which he joined in 1996. 

“They were the band I can say that really broadened my love for East European music as a whole,” Speed said, “I really think that the music I have composed today has definitely taken a lot of specific sounds that we played when I was with them.”

Another band he spent some time with was the improvisational trio The Clarinets which explored the possiblities clarinets playing multi-pitch tones and using timbre deviation in a group setting. Oscar Noreiga and Anthony Burr joined him in this trio. Their music took on a more classical approach and has an acoustically ambient sound to it. 

“I have not done anything with Anthony for awhile as he teaches at UC San Diego, but Oscar and I are still in Endangered Blood and he’s quickly getting his name out there,” Speed said.

In 1996, along with joining Slavic Soul Party, Speed wanted to create his own music and formed the band “NO” which specialized in improvised free jazz, modern rock, eastern folk, and minimalism. That band toured in New York and released four albums until 2004 which is also when he left Slavic Soul Party.

By 2006, Speed created Skirl Records label which is dedicated to documenting the work of Brooklyn artists whose music is centered on experimental jazz with stylistic boundaries. His current band Endangered Blood is made up of three of his long-time colleagues including Jim Black, Oscar Noreiga, and Trevor Dunn. 

“There were elements of bebop, Mariachi, free jazz, and post-bop all seamlessly strung together,” according to the magazine All About Jazz. 

Speed continues to compose and play with Endangered Blood and last summer released a new EP from his original band Human Feel with his original bandmates. In the coming years, Speed hopes to compose more music and continue his success with Endangered Blood and continue playing in the Claudia Quintet band he has been a part of since 2002.