An unassuming saxophone/clarinet master whose own name never headlines an album, Chris Speed has nonetheless stamped his reed work across a number of stellar sessions by more visible modern jazz luminaries, including trumpeter Dave Douglas and cellist Erik Friedlander. He also played a role in John Zorn’s Bar Kokhba Chamber Music unit, and discussing Speed’s Yeah No quartet without mention of the Kosher supergroup Masada is near impossible.
Though Yeah No’s precise, orchestrated sound is worlds away from the ferocious intensity of a live Masada set, many songs on Swell Henry work from the same “Middle Eastern” progressions that power Zorn’s Hasidic titles, trafficking in a slightly exotic brand of warm, rustic fusion. Subdued accordion work from Rob Burger of the Tin Hat Trio builds on Yeah No’s atmospherics for five of these ten concise collisions between old-world folk sensibility and modern jazz principle.
Pieces like minimalist opener “She Has Four Thorns,” a five-minute meditation in 4/4 rock time, bear little in the way of the pointed virtuosity so common to academic jazz, but Speed and his company clearly possess the skill required to detour into more aggressive territory on command, as in the lively up-tempo number “Flanked” or the expert free-play breakdown “He Has A Pair of Dice.”
Despite sharing common threads with Masada, Yeah No which also features drummer Jim Black, bassist Skuli Sverrisson and trumpeter Cuong Vu — is a much subtler creature, never given to inducing such extremes of exhilaration or fatigue, and Speed’s formula works best when his group plays as a quietly composed unit, steadily gaining power throughout each expertly arranged composition.