Bruce’s Fingers BF 44-CD

Described as by the musicians involved as “manic free jazz”, IMPROVABILITY is the first recording in 10 years by the power trio of Charles Wharf on woodwinds, bassist Simon H. Fell and drummer Paul Hession.

Yet while it doesn’t detract from the pile- driver authority of the session — or the trio members — by also asking: “is it just like the old days?” the response is what they probably wouldn’t expect. Yes, not only does the sound compare favorably to other Fell- Hession trios like the one with saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, it also suggests the gut-wrenching eruptions of even earlier free jazz bands such as those led by saxophonists Albert Ayler, Frank Wright and Peter Brötzmann and the heyday of the New Thing.

Bringing that same heft to his solos on soprano and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet Wharf, whose association with Fell goes back to 1981, unquestionably makes his presence felt. But the bassist and drummer, who together and alone have faced off with such frenzied improvisers as Brötzmann, George Haslam and Paul Dunmall aren’t fazed in the least.

The only folks who make be shocked, though, are those who know Fell merely from his large compositional works or minimalist combos such as VHF. His playing and that of the others is as rip snorting here as it is restrained elsewhere.

A strong example of this occurs on “Self portrait with burning cigarette”, an instant composition like the rest of the material. Here Wharf’s Aylerian honks and R&B style intensity vibrato are met by speed-of-light bowed bass reflections with its share of yelps and a deep ostinato midway between Jimmy Garrison and Ronnie Boykins. Hession’s steady rumble and roll sometimes takes in Sunny Murray-like outright banging. Ultimately the whole confection of raw excitement dissipates in a final nephritic squeak from the tenor saxophonist.

Not that rawness is the end-all and be-all for the three. “The interior of sight”, for instance, begins with about one minute of restrained bare hands drum skin and cymbal undulation, succeeded by the definitely non-Western cast of a snake charmer’s plaint from Wharf’s soprano sax. As the saxist moves into penny whistle territory, Hession introduces double stick manipulations and sounds as if he’s playing a conga or doumbek. Fell’s quick shift from shrieking high pitches to resonant lower tones keeps the rhythm steady leading to a mini duet with Wharf irregular vibrato matching his percussive rumbling.

Then there’s the more than 18 minute “The angel of hearth and home” which shows off Wharf’s sideslipping bass clarinet approach. Quickly accelerating from proper BritImprov mode built around tiny gestures, he’s soon sounding out a full-fledged theme from mid-range enlivened with the occasional chirp for emphasis. The rhythm section’s shifting accents also give way to an approximation of walking bass from Fell, who braces the beat with guitar-like strokes. Bass clarinet twittering becomes more aviary as the tempo accelerates as Hession’s press rolls and Fell’s unvarying basso pattern encourage Wharf’s dissonant playing to such an extent that between his tiptop high and basement low notes it sounds as if two horns are playing at once. Eventually you have a mental picture of him that resembles those photos of John Coltrane bending from the waist and blowing, as Wharf squeezes constricted notes from his solar plexus and you wonder when and where it will all end. Where it does is when he shifts back to mid range tones so you’ll recognize the bass clarinet, before climaxing in repeated mystical squeals and painful sounding smears.

“Is it just like the old days?” Well, perhaps with a decade of varied musicianship internalized by all three, “it’s” actually better. Hession Wharf and Fell prove that there’s still plenty of effective forceful music that can be produced in a Free Jazz setting sounding a horn, beating a drum and plucking a bass.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Between the clock and the bed 2. Enter, leave 3. The interior of sight 4. Self portrait with burning cigarette 5. The angel of hearth and home

Personnel: Charles Wharf (soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet); Simon H. Fell (bass); Paul Hession (drums)