Simon H. Fell

Composition No. 30.
Bruce’s Fingers BF 27

The compositions and performance of British bassist Simon H. Fell on this two-CD set may be the long-awaited physical flowering of Gunther Schuller’s and John Lewis’ ideas from the 1960s. Fell may also have taken those theories even further.

In the early 1960s, Schuller, a modern composer, French hornist and head of Boston’s New England Conservatory; and Lewis, pianist and music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet; conceived of Third Stream music that would combine elements of music’s first and second streams of classical music and jazz. They recorded a few albums and even put together a mixed jazz and classical ensemble called Orchestra USA.

Due to hostility from so-called serious musicians these experiments came to an abrupt end shortly afterwards. Faced with rock’s hegemony, non-pop music was occupied with survival for the next 20 or so years. So it wasn’t until composers like Anthony Braxton John Zorn and Muhal Richard Abrams on the American side and Barry Guy and Alexander von Schlippenbach at the European end started writing for larger ensembles that the Third Stream term again came into use.

More inter-genre contacts seemed to be possible in Europe, probably due to an interest in improvisation from younger musicians of both schools. But despite many attempts, the number of successful so-called Third Stream pieces remained small. At least that is until Fell came along. Although he would probably bristle at the Third Stream label, the bassist has for many years tried for, as he terms it, “a blurring of distinctions between jazz, improvised and classical musics”.

The more than two hours of studio-based assemblages that make up this session are his most exciting fusion yet. Not only do improvisers, a big band and a chamber ensemble interact, but considering that there are loud, speedy solos from at least three electric guitarists, elements of rock enter into the mix as well. Plus there’s also a bit of tape manipulation and transmutation.

With 42 players involved at various times the listener really does need the CD booklet, where Fell outlines his musical philosophy and how some parts of the composition, which is also subtitled Compilation III, came together. Especially valuable, due to the combinations and recombinations involved, is the jewel box insert which serves as a sort of scorecard, noting by exact time and position on each track, which musician is involved in which improvisation. Some of the improvisations are completely free; others are based on graphic or verbal suggestions. Most of the remaining music is notated.

Notated and manipulated, it should be added. For while all the parts were recorded live, the sessions took place during a four-month period in 1998 with not everyone assembled in the same place at the same time. Thus there will be portions where a musician will be soloing over the pre-recorded sounds from another section of the suite. Probably the most memorable example of this comes on “Part 3: Blues”, the creation of which Fell directly relates to the influence of Charles Ives, Charles Mingus and John Cage. With written sections suggesting Mingus’ gospel-oriented tunes, the duo improvisations were constructed in a unique fashion. Tenor saxophonist Mick Beck performed his solo while listening to a recording of the orchestra rhythm section through headphones. Synchronously Paul Hession produces a percussion program in reaction to Beck’s improvisations, but deliberately without headphones, can’t hear the rhythm section work to which the saxophonist is reacting.

Beck and Hession are merely two of Fell’s long time associates who add heft and highlights to the written composition. Another is contrabass clarinetist Charles Wharf. Often paired with a bassoonist and/or a contrabassoonist to fabricate a concrete-like bottom, when his tone isn’t subterranean, it screeches from the unwieldy instrument’s highest register. Other standouts include drummer Mark Saunders, whose solo section in “Part 4: Rhythm” with brass and string backing, allows him to ranges all over his kit, sounding crash cymbals, hi-hat, snare rims and a wood block and getting a bongo-like tone from one of his attached drums.

There’s also vibist Orphry Robinson, who is usually found in less experimental contexts. On “Construct 3”, for instance he unveils some swinging mainstream style-bar vibrations which nicely contrast with the cymbal on drumstick screeching and irregular rhythms of both Hession and Sanders. But considering that Fell is noted as playing with both men at the same time you probably wonder which sounds are live and which are Memorex. “Interlude”, also featuring Robinson, is a subdued swinger whose vibes-and-bass lilt brings to mind Red Norvo’s trio with Mingus or George Shearing’s quintets. Fell writes, perhaps jokingly, that he wrote it by applying tone row to a chorale by J.S. Bach. Since Bach’s work was also a frequent inspiration for the MJQ’s Lewis, maybe Third Stream connections assert themselves without the composer realizing it.

When guitarists Colin Medlock and Stefan Jaworzyn are given their heads, however, the results differ. In the former case screaming solos often resemble the most high-octane fuzztone creations of arena rock heroes like Eric Clapton and Alvin Lee. For the later, while his Jimi Hendrix-like firepower is put to good use, as in the composition’s very first track, by the final number his frantic jazz-rock flat picking has been framed in a context of an orchestral free-jazz blowout, almost the way Larry Coryell was integrated into Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (JCO) pieces in 1968. Unlike the JCO piece though, all this happens in the background is one episode of pretty string and woodwind laden medieval sounding music is succeeded by frighteningly intense orchestral sounds that could easily have been the soundtrack for a Hollywood suspense film of the early 1950s.

Other times soloists will step out from the big band to play at various time — in one trumpeter’s case — bits reminiscent of mainstreamer Clark Terry, hard bopper Freddie Hubbard or impressionistic Kenny Wheeler, introducing either brassy fanfares or delicate half-valve trills depending on the section.

Fell who at various times also contributes a Cagean interlude on prepared piano and some eccentric New music-like harpsichord, doesn’t lose his jazz bone fides either. It’s his bass line that often shapes both the written and non-written parts of the suite, while on the “Trio” track his arco sweeps match the miscellaneous percussion soundings from Sanders and tenor saxophonist John Butcher’s phrase shifting and split tones.

With further notated and improvised techniques, including a synchronous tutti, variations on a chromatic scale, a six chord fanfare and many others in use during the session’s 125 minute playing time, musical examination and explanation could go on in a review three times this length.

However to fully understand the CDs, note another question Fell once asked in an interview. “Why can’t you have great jazz, great improvisation and great contemporary classical music all at the same time?”

Why not indeed? He has certainly proven that the theorem is possible with this impressive session.

— Ken Waxman

Gary Farr, Tony Rees-Roberts, Joanne Baker (trumpets); Paul Wright, Carol Jarvis, Matthew Harrison (trombones); Andrew Oliver (tuba); David Tollington, Tim Page (French horns); Nikki Dyer (piccolo, flute); Sam Koczy (oboe); Becky Smith (clarinet); Charles Wharf (contrabass clarinet); John Butcher(soprano, tenor saxophones); Carl Raven (soprano saxophones, clarinet); Simon Willescroft (alto saxophone); Hayley Cornick (alto saxophone, flute); Mick Beck, Kathy Hird (tenor saxophones); Alan Wilkinson (baritone saxophone); Jo Luckhurst (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet); Irene Lifke (violin); Mark Wastell, Matthew Wilkes, Kate Hurst (cellos); Justin Quinn (acoustic guitar); Stefan Jaworzyn, Colin Medlock, Damien Bowskill, Andrew Stewart (guitars); Rhodri Davies (harp); Thanea Stevens (dulcichord); Fardijah Freedman (harpsichord); Guy Avern (piano, bass guitar); James Cuthill (prepared piano); Opry Robinson (vibes); John Preston (bass);Simon H. Fell (bass, prepared piano, harpsichord); Paul Hession, Mark Sanders (drums)