By Jo Fell
Bruce’s Fingers 42

Lively arts of about the same vintage, photography and improvised music seem to have a potent relationship to one another. Think of how our view of early jazz and blues performers like King Oliver, Fats Waller and Blind Lemon Jefferson has been influenced by how they appear in their pictures. There are even a few, like the legendary New Orleans cornettist Buddy Bolden, who only exist in one snapshot and old-timers’ memories.

More recently, the moody introspective photos of Herman Leonard, all pinpoint details and curling cigarette smoke, defined Bebop for many people. The bright, outdoor portraits of William Claxton did the same for Cool Jazz.

New music calls for new photographic thinking, however, and that’s what Jo Fell presents in this short volume of 34 high-quality reproductions. Using only available light and non-intrusive techniques, Fell depicts a cross-section of British improvisers in performance from 1988 to 1998.

Along the way, she makes it a point to try to capture the creative process and the intersection of performer and instrument itself, rather than creating strict portraits of the players in these mostly black and white shots. Thus saxophonist Mick Beck is rendered as a giant hand filling the frame pressing on different keys. In the shadows, mouth open, hands on his hips, singer Koichi Makigami resembles an Inuit sculpture. In one color photo bassist Simon H. Fell’s upper body seems to be made of Plasticine as it’s captured in the act of movement; and one stark shot of violinist Phil Wachsmann emphasizes the illumination on his fiddle, his bow and his bald pate.

Fell isn’t the only photographer working this way of course. Toronto’s Susan O’Connor has also built up an impressive inventory of available-light performance photos; and obviously there are others. Still as Mao Tse-tung once stated, let a thousand flowers bloom. Let many photographers capture improvised music at its most free and preserve it as Fell has done. Certainly anyone interested in the look and feel of so-called BritImprov during that crucial decade would be wise to investigate her book.

— Ken Waxman