Tag Archives: Simon Fell Ensemble

The New York City Jazz Record review by Ken Waxman

SFE - Positions and Descriptions Clean Feed (CF230)
For the past 20-odd years as “Butch” Morris has demonstrated conduction: structuring free improvisation using a specific series of hand gestures, many improvising ensembles have been created in his its wake. Whether groups use or not signals developed by Morris to rearrange and sculpt notated and non-notated music, conduction is part of their inventory. As these releases demonstrate however, it depends on individual musicians’ skills for a performance to be fully satisfying.

This is apparent on Verona, collecting two Morris-directed conductions from 1994 and 1995. While both involve 11-piece ensembles, the instrumentation in 1995 makes it more satisfying. The three parts of “Verona Skyscraper” vibrate with a lyrical exposition and juddering intensity that upstages the five parts of “The Cloth” from 1994. As two percussionists, a guitarist and two pianists stretch, smack and crunch a pulsating ostinato, distinctive solo interludes interrupt the cacophonous friction. Bill Horvitz’s guitar plinks are contrapuntally paired with one pianist’s key clipping or the aggression of the rhythm section is muted by Stefano Benini’s legato flute tone or contralto wisps from Marco Pasetto’s clarinet. Throughout, Zeena Parkins’ harp plinks are lyrical with a hard edge. As the massed instrumental textures quiver continuously, the stand out soloist is J.A. Deane on trombone and electronics. His braying plunger work cuts through harmonized woodwind extensions or the layered friction of piano strumming cadenzas. Eventually the full-force instrumental bubbles to a crescendo, then ebbs to signal the finale by shrinking to triangle pings and guitar plinks.

Although Deane also solos on “The Cloth”, the minimalist quivers predominating from dual cello string shimmies, low-frequency piano chording and gaunt oboe tones make the themes overly precious. When the downward pinches of Parkins’ harp stand out as disruptively staccato, the textural sameness of the other textures becomes apparent. Luckily by the time the carol-like “Omega” is played, sul ponticello strokes from the celli, and whacks from Le Quan Ninh’s percussion join barking trombone guffaws to angle at least this piece towards concluding excitement.

Flash forward 12 years and bassist/composer Simon H. Fell’s Positions and Descriptions owes as much to juxtaposition as conduction, although Steve Beresford s on hand to bring conduction clues to the 16-piece ensemble. The nine-movement suite is described as “a compilation … incorporating composed, pre-recorded and improvised elements”. With the pre-recorded sequences at a minimum, the tension engendered is between the composition’s notated and free-form sections. Early in the suite Tim Berne’s mercurial saxophone lines create free jazz interludes abetted by drummer Mark Sanders’ rim shots. Later, a chamber ensemble of clarinet and strings echo ornate textures as glockenspiel, vibes and bells jingle contrapuntally and a tubax burps. From a jazz standpoint, “Movt. III” is the most exhilarating track, with Sanders’ bass drum accents and Fell’s pumping strings leading the band though a vamp reminiscent of Count Basie’s 16 men swinging. In counterpoint clarinettist Alex Ward produces reed-biting shrieks and trumpeter Chris Batchelor brassy slurs. Before a cacophonous ending, pianist Philip Thomas and violinist Mifune Tsuji output a faux-schmaltzy tango. Preceding and following this, harp glissandi and baroque-styled trumpet maintain the composition’s formalistic aspects. Fell makes jokes as well. “Plusieurs Commentaires de PB pour DR [Description 5]” described as a “mini concerto for baritone saxophone”, only features the horn’s distinctive snorts when introducing the following “Movt. V”. Before that the piece involves flute whistles, piano key percussion and half-swallowed saxophone tongue slaps. The concluding “Movt. V” gives guitarist Joe Morris a dynamic showcase for kinetic string snaps. At the same time Fell has orchestrated sequences in which staccato string vibrations, woodwind smears and horror-movie quivers from the electronics arrive in sequence. Taken adagio, the finale involves every musician creating snarling dissonance.

Whether that last sequence actually involved conduction, giving top-flight soloists their head is evidentially as good a guarantee of quality music as theory.