Martin Speake’s developing association with Ethan Iverson continues to yield such satisfying results that it’s no surprise that tonight’s gig is packed to budget airline economy-class levels of intimacy with a connoisseur crowd eager to witness this latest iteration. Even though there’s been no new studio recordings from the pair since 2018s acclaimed Intentions album, there’s plenty of evidence here tonight of their continuing dialogue.
After a typically ebullient introduction from irrepressible host Andy Lavender, proceedings start with a tribute to Lyle Mays – ‘Hidden Vision’ has Iverson playing a simple, melodic four-chord cycle, over which Speake draws elegant arabesques, creating a mood that’s suitably mournful but uplifting. They build together in intensity, as bassist Calum Gourlay adds a spare, sonorous anchor and Iverson’s fellow expat Jeff Williams contributes colours and textures in a manner recalling the late lamented Jon Christensen. Both Speake and Iverson share a rather austere, professorial onstage demeanour that’s at odds with the hip playful swing of the follow-up, a twisting blues line that kicks off with a bravura solo from Williams, while ‘Mufti’ conjures up the spirit of Eddie Harris for some school’s-out boogaloo. Speake shows his versatility in the depth and breadth of his language, now speaking fluent Coltrane-blues on the former tune, appropriately named ‘Bouncy’, now ripping out some appropriately greasy funk phrasing on the latter, but maintaining his clear, supernaturally even Paul Desmond-like tone throughout each different avatar.
Iverson has a similarly polyglot facility – his solo on ‘Mufti’ builds from ingenious variations on a one-handed three-note lick to a hypnotic gamelan-like shimmer, then veering off into furiously virtuosic Cecil Taylor abstractions before bringing back the funk to finish with big Les McCann block chords. Speake’s ballad ‘Moving On’ inspires Iverson to an improvisation of imposingly poised command – on an uptempo, Ornette-ish variation on 'Rhythm Changes' he conjures up a storm of creative chaos that resolves beautifully in a spontaneously conceived counterpoint.
The second set brings further evidence of Speake’s versatility as a composer and improviser, with a passionate and immaculately plotted solo over a long modal piece providing a particular highlight, but the final treat comes with the encore: a wonderfully creative reading of the venerable standard ‘My Heart Tells Me’, with Iverson delivering a comically precise, cartoonishly creative contribution, Speake’s full, burnished tone and perfect phrasing shown to maximum effect, and everyone swinging like crazy.