That there is still, in this jazz label-less era we currently live in, a place where experimental jazz can find a home and a means to release music that is not self-produced and -released is to be celebrated. Origin Records has almost singlehandedly taken on the mantel of being such a location. Their release of Speak, the eponymously self-titled first recording by the five member amalgam of musicians that was originally billed as trumpeter Cuong Vu’s University of Washington Student Ensemble, affirms that all is still right in the world. Vu, a faculty member at the university, was originally the faculty advisor for the band, but he has subsequently stepped into the ensemble and the results are spectacular.
Vu, a former member of Pat Metheny and Myra Melford’s bands, has coalesced a sound that goes well beyond his influence, and takes into account the burgeoning abilities and compositional focus of each of the members of the band. The result is a disc that gives rise to the limitless possibilities inherent in jazz. Swing, space, free, rock, and fusion are only five adjectives that don’t begin to describe the music on their debut CD. That "People Or Cats" has an open-ended swirling middle section that references some of Miles Davis’ 70s work, is placed next to a hard-driving almost swinger like "Amalgam In The Middle," works because the ensemble sound has a unified conceptual framework that transfers well from one composition to the next.
The idea of improvisation is almost secondary with this band. What captures the mind is the intense focus of their sound. At times sounding like the horn section from Chicago, and at times sounding almost Sun Ra-ish, there is a propulsion that forces itself upon the listener. Even in the midst of Andrew Swanson’s extended technique saxophone solo on "Polypockets," the keyboard ostinato and drumset kicks always keep the polyrhythms upfront. This indescribably delicious and energetic band just doesn’t know when to quit, and the listener is rewarded with turns of musical phrase that both don’t fit and fit perfectly at the same time. Like Thelonious Monk’s music, taking out a single note reduces the substance to futility, but when all the parts come together the result is astounding.This disc is highly recommended for those who are open to experimental fusion jazz that borders on the rock oriented work of progressive rock pioneers of instrumental music like that of Frank Zappa and Rush.