Tag Archives: SFE


Improjazz review by Luc Bouquet

S Fell

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.

Tomajazz review by Pachi Tapiz

SFE Simon Fell Ensemble – Positions and Descriptions. Composition Nº75 (CF 230)
Positions and Descriptions de Simon H. Fell es una pequeña obra maestra para una formación de quince músicos más director, en la que participaron el propio Fell, Joe Morris (como guitarrista), Tim Berne, Mark Sanders y Steve Beresford. La música, fascinante de principio a fin, transita por el jazz, la clásica contemporánea (la grabación se realizó en directo en el Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival), la libre improvisación e incluso tiene unos ciertos toques de tango. La composición interpretada a lo largo de la grabación aparece estructurada en cinco movimientos (divididos a su vez en sus correspondientes partes), unidos por cuatro breves interludios. El gran mérito de toda la formación fue lograr dar un sentido de continuidad a la música, en la que se van alternando momentos concretos y abstractos, transitando de pasajes suaves a otros intensos. Es también muy interesante la instrumentación encargada de interpretarla. A los saxos, clarinetes, flautas y trompeta, se unen otros instrumentos como el arpa y el violín (Mifune Tsuji está magnífica), así como el theremin y la electrónica. A pesar del poco tiempo que el ensemble tuvo para ensayar y preparar esta obra, el resultado es soberbio.

Paris Transatlantic review by Michael Rosenstein

Since the mid 80s, bassist and composer Simon H. Fell has been developing compositional strategies for working with various combinations of improvisers, classically trained musicians, and pre-recorded electronics, producing along the way a body of incomparable recordings on his Bruce’s Fingers label (he has subtitled these “Compilations”, which, in his notes for Composition No. 62, he describes as pieces which blur “the distinction between jazz, improvised, and classical musics, between immediate and retrospective interaction, between intentional and chance relationships…”). It’s been six years since Composition No. 62, so it’s great to get a chance to hear another one of Fell’s ambitious projects. Positions and Descriptions was commissioned for the 2007 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which allowed him to assemble 15 musicians including regulars like Jim Denley, Alex Ward, Rhodri Davies, Philip Thomas, Steve Beresford and Mark Sanders, along with violinist Mifune Tsuji and Americans Tim Berne and Joe Morris (Clark Rundell conducts the ensemble). In his incisive liner notes, Fell describes the piece as combining three overlapping elements: a complex score, a “mobile” system of pre-recorded, inter-related electronic elements, and a series of solo and ensemble improvisations. The five-part structure finds room for cycling thematic kernels, real-time interaction of layered electronics and ensemble, inversions of tango and swing, extrapolations of Webern’s Variations for Orchestra Op. 30, and, of course, extended solos by members of the ensemble. The contrasting timbres and densities are always striking, the buzz and oscillations of electronics countered by tuned percussion, high trilling piccolo, skirling sax, the clarion cry of the trumpet, the clarinet’s rich chalumeau and the seismic rumble of the tubax. Fell avoids both Po-Mo pastiche and full-on assault, instead creating a genuinely impressive musical statement that never subordinates the musicians’ individuality to structural concerns. For those who have been following his ensemble music this one shouldn’t be missed; for those looking for an introduction to one of the most engaging explorers at the intersection of composition and improvisation, dive right in.

Burning Ambulance review by Phil Freeman

SFE – Positions & Descriptions (CF 230) 
The free jazz orchestra has a long and raucous history. (I analyzed some notable recordings for Perfect Sound Forever in 2003.) This group, organized by and performing a piece by bassist Simon H. Fell (I’m gonna go ahead and guess that SFE stands for Simon Fell Ensemble), isn’t as wall-blasting as the Globe Unity Orchestra or some of Cecil Taylor‘s large groups can be; in fact, there are many sections that are soft and quite beautiful. At the same time, there are sections of this vast (15 musicians plus a conductor, 79 minutes) work that swing and churn like a mixture of Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa circa Uncle Meat, and Pierre Boulez.

The piece, which was recorded live at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK in 2007, goes through five movements, each of which is divided into subsections labeled “Positions.” These are bridged by interludes known as “Descriptions”; there are five of those, too. The first four positions are atmospheric and vaguely orchestral, full of hums and zings and lots of space between sounds. This mode, strongly reminiscent of Euro improv but also of horror or sci-fi movie scores, continues all the way through descriptions 2 and 3, entitled “FZ pour PB” and “Commentaire de ‘Fz pour PB.’” Then things take off a little bit, as the lurching Movement III (positions 6-9) begins with much more activity from the horns and a sort of off-kilter swing. There’s also an extraordinarily beautiful, mournful violin solo by Mifune Tsuji. But soon enough, things drop down to an ominous simmer again, with reeds offering slow-burning solos that are as much about the flapping of valves as the production of notes. In the back, guitar and piano make very soft sounds, as though not wanting to disturb anyone.

The band lurches back into life for the final, nearly 24-minute Movement V. A sort of chamber jazz for large ensemble, it sways along for a minute or two, before Mark Sanders‘ drums and Joe Morris‘ stinging (but ultra-clean) electric guitar take over. They’re succeeded by what I think is a baritone sax (there are a lot of low-end instruments in the reed section), then piano and some whooshing “extended technique” trumpet work…the piece goes on like this, a variety of instrumentalists taking spotlight turns that last just long enough to be exciting, without ever letting anyone wear out his or her welcome.

The liner notes indicate that this recording is a combination of live performance and pre-recorded electronic elements, with some sections scored and others improvised. The whole thing is utterly seamless, though, with no awkward moments, and any listener with an ear for this kind of thing will almost certainly be held rapt from beginning to end.

With a group of this size, it’s probably reasonable to list personnel, so here we go: Alex Ward and Andrew Sparling on clarinets, Jim Denley on flutes, Chris Batchelor on trumpet, Tim Berne and Damien Royannais on saxophones, Rhodri Davies on harp, Philip Thomas on piano and celesta, Joe Morris on guitar, Steve Beresford on electronics, Mifune Tsuji on violin, Philip Joseph on theremin, Simon Fell on bass and electronics, Joby Burgess on percussion, Mark Sanders on drums, and Clark Rundell conducting.

You’re not likely to hear another record that sounds anything like this anytime soon. Highly recommended.