Axis Of Cavity
Bruce’s Fingers BF 40

Thirteen Rectangles
Bruce’s Fingers BF 43

Simon H. Fell doesn’t see consistency as a virtue. “My type of listener,” he once said, “would be someone who would pick up one of my records and say, ‘What the hell is he doing now? I’m intrigued … I’ll find out’.” Over the course of his 20-odd years of playing what he describes as “experimental music”, The Cambridge, England-based bassist and composer has involved himself in varied improv situations.

A participant in guitarist Derek Bailey’s Company Week, Fell has also worked with electroacoustic composer Martin Archer, been a members of the ethereal IST trio and backed up hard blowers like saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Alan Wilkinson and Mick Beck. In 1998 he garnered unprecedented praise for mixing and matching improvisers, a big band and a chamber ensemble in COMPOSITION NO. 30/COMPILATION III for (Bruce’s Fingers BF 27 CD), that also seemed to join many streams of sound together into an eclectic 20th century whole.

Yet anyone who thought he had figured out Fell’s modus operandi from any one of those earlier discs may be thrown for a pleasurable loop with these two new sessions. The Badland band featuring Fell, alto saxophonist Simon Rose and drummer Steve Noble working out on nine free improvisations, while SFQ joins Fell and Noble with trombonist Gail Brand, clarinetist Alex Ward and pianist Alex Maguire performing a more-than-70-minute suite of un-hyphenated jazz.

Akin to earlier power trios Fell was involved in with the likes of Wilkinson and drummer Paul Hession, Badland is a rip-snorting combo that on this disc struts its stuff on nine improvisations, or if you prefer, instant compositions. Ostensibly, the main difference between Rose and many of Fell’s other reed partners, is Rose’s background in so-called world music. However, except for some passages on the final track where he seems to be getting an Arabic tone in his repeated trills and smears plus his creation of a coda of recurrent phrases, free jazz informs the reedist’s work more than anything else. Oh, there is a point on “Arm of the Sea” where reverberated notes appear to be magnifying to such an extent that the sax sounds like a bagpipe. But Rose’s work with drummer Ken Hyder, who specializes in both jazz and Scottish music may account for that.

The altoist, who insists that he tries to experience music in other cultures, does create some unique hunter’s horn sounds from his axe on the quieter, more atmospheric “Groove For Deep Branch”. Here, using circular breathing to extend and multiply various notes fits perfectly with Noble’s cymbal work and Fell’s plucked bass. Elsewhere, though, it would seem that the saxist improvises at only one intensity — high. That’s fine if his tongue slaps, reed kisses, whistles, exaggerated vibrato, screeches and whines in the shriek register fit with the bassist scratching out more and varied tones or Noble going at his kit full force. But there are times that the more low-key forays of the bassist and the drummer, whose past associations have included clarinetist Ward, conduction pioneer Butch Morris, and who can almost replicate the tone of a glass orchestra, have to struggle to be heard. On “The Temporal Bones”, for instance, if Rose didn’t appear to be confining himself to playing his mouthpiece, the sound of Fell’s minute bass scratches and Noble cannily spinning items on his drum tops would have been lost.

Luckily everything falls into place on “Surface For Talice”, AXIS’s more than 12-minute centrepiece. Here Rose’s mouse squeaks and repetitive trilling smears and honks submerge into irregular air vibrations as all three instruments mesh in near silence. Other times, when not cymbal scratching, Noble showcases some upfront flams, while Fell can be heard perfecting a peg and wooden body explorations of the bass, ricocheting his bow off his taunt strings and even indulging in the sort of semi-traditional walking that characterizes SFQ.

Performing 16 (sic) Fell compositions inspired by paintings by Wassily Kandisky, THIRTEEN combines notated and improvised material using the literal reading of color blocks to determine written material, pitch range use and tone colors. All recorded in one take, the excellence of the disc is as much a tribute to the cumulative talents of the five musicians as the bassist’s writing and arranging skills.

Frankly, the description of the compositional process makes the music on the CD appear to be more complex than it actually is. Notwithstanding the wordiness, it’s merely Fell coming to grips with what he calls the “‘classic’ jazz quartet/quintet arrangement …“an organic, flexible band” of “wind instrument(s), piano, bass and drums.”

This shouldn’t been confused with those attempts at jazz revivalism practiced by neo-cons however. No running through of standards with standard voicings, this music can be seen as the spiritual extension of, to coin a phrase, the sort of experimental hard bop that people like Gigi Gyrce, Benny Golson and Oliver Nelson created.

Another difference is the instrumental make up of the band. Tony Scott was probably the only (hard) bop clarinetist, but Ward, a long time associate of drummer Noble, welcomes POMO influences, having played with musicians as different as Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne and Morris. Trombonist Brand, one of the most impressive brass soloists of her generation, is part of the Lunge group with Phil Durrant on violin and electronics, Pat Thomas on keyboards and electronics plus percussionist Mark Sanders, another Fell associate. Maguire, another mate of Noble’s, studied with John Cage as well as jazz pianists, and now performs in jazz groups led by saxophonists like the American Michael Moore, the South African Sean Bergin and Briton Elton Dean.

Long-time Fell fans will probably note the prototypical chromatic passing tones in his walking bass lines. That’s because the quarter note rhythm is often needed to showcase the subtle historical jazz references in this almost-continuous piece. Early on, a Brand and Noble exchange come across as if they were a supersonic version of Curtis Fuller and Art Blakey. Much later, with her plunger mute — and perhaps tongue — firmly in place, a quasi-Trad section unrolls, with the trombonist in the Kid Ory role, Ward coming across like Jimmy Noone and Noble smashing out hard two beats like a reincarnated Baby Dodds.

While all this is going on, however, Fell produces metallic-sounding scratches from his bass, a sequel to his earlier nearly inaudible solo — turn the volume knob way up to hear it — where you can hear him bowing and scraping simultaneously. Not only does he explore the bass’s darker regions, but he also tortures the wood to get unexpected tones.

Historical parallelism isn’t all that’s on offer however. Midway through the suite, one track finds Ward dedicating one part of a solo that morphs from sparrow to cricket tones to a fast, clean, almost Benny Goodman-like light sound. Despite that, Noble appears to have decided that the perfect companion to this quasi-Swing is Sunny Murray-style percussion door knocking. Maguire adds steady, forward-moving piano chords, while Fell slides up and down his bass strings.

Other times when Maguire sounds out those familiar left-handed, jazz-chords, it appears that Fell is torn between walking like Paul Chambers or slapping the bass like Pops Foster. Eventually he decides to do both. Later, clarinet key pops are met with flowing arco bass swoops, which — with the pianist suddenly presenting what sound like conventional romantic themes from his keys — could for a short time be mistaken for a chamber recital as the clarinetist joins the piano and bass with his most legit-sounding tone on the disc. That lasts until basso smears from the trombone and differing percussion patterns fragment the piece into improvisation.

One could go on trying to describe further patterns, as when the low notes of the trombone’s theme move in counterpoint to squeaky clarinet lines, or when two or three instruments combine into small groupings, before breaking off, amoebae-like, into several other links. What’s most impressive is that Fell doesn’t draw attention to this musical legerdemain, but subtly allows things to change organically, so that the next section has begun almost before you remark upon the change.

All in all, it would seem obvious that Fell has solved the puzzle of how to successfully write an extended work for a classic jazz combo with THIRTEEN and produced remarkable sounds with that group. Plus when it comes to the so-called traditional free improv trio, AXIS shows that he doesn’t do that too badly either.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Axis: 1. Axis Of Cavity 2. Arm of the Sea 3. Groove for Deep Branch

4. Surface for Talice 5. The Temporal Bones 6. Birdie 7. The Scapula Angles 8. Spinous Prowess 9. Bow, Stick and Reed

Personnel: Axis: Simon Rose (alto saxophone); Simon H. Fell (bass); Steve Noble (drums)

Track Listing: Thirteen: 1. Start Frame + Soft Hard (Interpolation 1) 2. Rectangle 1 3. Rectangle 2 4. Rectangle 3 5. Rectangles 4 & 5 6. Rectangle 6 7. Rectangle 7 8. Soft Hard (Interpolation 2) 9. Rectangle 8 10. Rectangle 9 11. Rectangle 10 12. Rectangles 11 & 12 13. Rectangle 13. Soft Hard (Interpolation 3) + End Frame

Personnel: Thirteen: Gail Brand (trombone); Alex Ward (clarinet); Alex Maguire (piano); Simon H. Fell (bass); Steve Noble (drums)