From the Diary of Dog Drexel
Rossbin RS 008

Scott Fields is yet another musician interested in melting the boundaries between so-called jazz and so-called classical music.

He’s usually identified with the free music side of things through recorded and other sessions with the likes of bassist Michael Formanek, percussionist Michael Zerang, clarinetist François Houle and drummer Hamid Drake. Yet the Madison, Wis.-based guitarist also has advanced a method by which chamber ensembles like the one on this carefully designed CD can develop extended improvisations.

Seemingly a close cousin to Butch Morris’s theory of conduction, Field’s process is built on a tonal system that Stephen Dembski, a University of Wisconsin-Madison music professor, who conducts the quintet here, developed. The American Manual Alphabet and traditional conducting gestures are used by the conductor to select from melodic fragments. Then, as musicians switch between motives, the basic materials for their improvisations — primarily 48 non-linear scales upon which the motives and gestures are built, plus the underlying feel — also change.

What results, at least on this CD, is five examples of abstruse, unconventional chamber music. Truthfully though, the outcome doesn’t sound that dissimilar from other small group, classically oriented pieces for strings, horns and percussion developed by improvisers who haven’t advanced specially designated theories. Additionally, although all the disc’s acrimonious-sounding song titles are Fields’s — who admits that “my porn name would be “Dog Drexel”, as are the first four compositions, this is still overall, ensemble work.

Naming his band in homage to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the guitarist’s playing partners get the space within which to forge their own lines. Interestingly not one has much hard-core jazz background. Clarinet and alto saxophonist Guillermo Gregorio’s history of experimentation stretches from his beginnings in Buenos Aires to his present residency in Chicago. Right now he works with similar committed players like cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Carrie Biolo, who is also on this disc. Percussionist Biolo who has recorded the formal music of Cornelius Cardew and Anthony Braxton has also toured with eccentric guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. Another associate of Lonberg-Holm and Zerang, not to mention Gregorio, oboist and hornist Kyle Bruckmann describes himself as a freelance classical musician.

Conservatory-trained trumpeter Greg Kelley sometimes plays free jazz with veterans like saxophonist Paul Flaherty and Braxton, but spends most of his time exploring the outer limits of textures created by his horn. He has released two notable solo CDs and often performs with other Boston-centred sonic explorers like saxophonist Bhob Rainey.

Kelley’s extended technique gets a suitable showcase on “Conflicted”, its polyrhythmic texture expanded to a longer form than on the other tracks. Advancing to triple tonguing from primary tones that morph between those of a baroque piccolo trumpet and breathy intervals, the initial theme is advanced by unison clarinet and vibes. As well, Bruckmann’s English horn articulates the instrument’s standard tone, but much tarter and sharper than classical types would expect. Eventually Gregorio’s alto saxophone and Fields’s nylon-string guitar alternate long lines until a harmonic blend of most of the instruments nearly create liturgical organ chords. Staccato pitch sliding arising from horn trills, trumpet blasts and harsh electric guitar fills soon turns repetitive mirroring the title, as feedback-laden licks presage a whining horn vamp gradually dissolving into silence.

“Pissed”, the shortest — at less than 8½ minutes — track is also the only other piece to truly reflect its appellation. It’s noisy, with smeared splutter from the trumpeter contrasting with woodwinds’ multiphonics and some metallic tone slivers from the vibes. Then discordant electric guitar notes join with the oboe to goose the theme into a higher pitch. At this point, Kelley seems to be fully inhabiting his horn, blaring as he comes up with balloon inflation sounds that mix with unpitched percussion hocketing and rococo horn lines.

Although longer, “Bummed” and “Agitated” may revolve around a shifting tonal centre and highlight conflicting musical patterns, but by this points the smears and multiphonics have been expected, like the sound of a pooch whose bark is worse than his bite. As a matter of fact, the edgy wooden-sounding percussion, legato oboe tones and resonant Hawaiian guitar allusion on the former and quieter vibes and nylon-string plucks on the later seem to suggest unified forward motion rather than polyrhythmic exploration. The adjective “pleasant” even comes to mind. It’s almost as if what you though was a ferocious junkyard hound has been revealed as a fluffy lap dog.

Metallic as all get out, “Medicated” — poor puppy Drexel — while notable on its own seems to be in variance with the other tracks. Software-constructed from Ensemble solo improvisations by Gregory Taylor, the result is wiggles, whooshes, whistles and multi-tonal echoes that can probably be linked to reed blasts, tingling bells and outer- space rockabilly guitar licks. Including what appears to be tapes running backwards creating voices like David Seville’s Chipmunks, the piece builds up to electronic drones and ends with a reverberating vibe note.

Taken together the entire project is satisfying, though not outstanding. If the pseudo-electronica had been dispensed with and more emphasis put on toughening up the initial polyrhythmic invention, things would have been more striking. Right now, though, it can satisfy many — especially those following the saga of Fields’s ever-changing Ensemble — and suggest new interest in what else the guitarist can create as a composer.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Conflicted 2. Pissed 3. Bummed 4. Agitated 5. Medicated

Personnel: Greg Kelley (trumpet); Guillermo Gregorio (alto saxophone, clarinet); Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, English horn); Scott Fields (electric guitar, nylon-string guitar); Carrie Biolo (vibraphone, marimba, crotales, unpitched percussion); Stephen Dembski (conductor [tracks 1-4]); Gregory Taylor (used Cycling 74’s Max/MSP software to construct [track 5] from solo improvisations by each ensemble member)