Four Compositions
Red Toucan RT 9376

Over the past 20 years, Yorkshire bassist Simon H. Fell has segmented his work between writing large scale compositions for massive orchestras of horns, strings, brass, percussion and electronics and playing bass as part of turbulent improv combos — usually in trios with a saxophonist and drummer

Four Compositions, a two-CD set, appears to be an almost wholly successful attempt to reconcile the formal and audacious parts of his musically schizophrenic personality. As a matter-of-fact, while the first disc, subtitled “Three Quintets” shows how far he has evolved in creating for his by then-established quintet, “Liverpool Quartet”, for an even smaller group confirms that accomplished creations can result from an even-more-relaxed milieu first time out.

Most impressive is the work of French hornist Guy Llewellyn. A specialist in contemporary classical performance, who has also worked with such Fell associates as drummer Paul Hession and saxist Alan Wilkinson, he brings the flexibility and colors of a slide trombone to his work here. Sharing the front line is clarinetist Alex Ward, who often works in duo with drummer Steve Noble, featured on the other disc. Ward whose playing partners have ranged from Britimprov godfather guitarist Derek Bailey to Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore is capable of pulling as many twisted notes from his ebony stick as Llewellyn can muster from his horn’s tubing. Drummer and electronics manipulator Mark Sanders is first call for many Britimprov situations, in combos led by saxists such as Paul Dunmal, for instance, or as part of the band Lunge, with trombonist Gail Brand, who also plays on CD1.

Oddly enough, while Fell in the notes maintains that the pieces written for the concert in Liverpool captured on the second CD, reflect a move away from jazz to connect with contemporary classical and experimental music, some of the tracks appear more overtly jazzy than the pieces on disc one. Especially obvious is the transparently titled “GM2 Blues” which floats on a Mingusaian bass line from its composer. Taken staccatissimo it’s most notable for a near-gutbucket solo from Llewellyn that somehow polyphonically intermingles the influences of Kid Ory and George Lewis. Ward’s high-pitched trilling often in harmony with curt, mellow horn lines, only adds to this, as do Sanders’ snare drum and hollow hand percussion accents. Most audible here than anywhere else, Fell contributes pedal point action to fling the piece forward.

“GM3 Rhythm” also reflects its title, as horn lines coalesce into a jaunty air that features steady rhythmic accompaniment from the drummer’s rumble and bounces plus a walking line from the bass. Although the harmonies break apart as the tune unrolls, neither the hornist’s twisted triplets and buzzes nor the clarinetist’s double-tongued, stray cat-like yowl detract from its unhurried pace and connection.

Notwithstanding sequenced fluttering from Sander’s electronics, this jazz/improv disposition remains throughout the second two-thirds of the disc in pieces like “Quartet” and “Liverpool 2”. The latter features reverberations distorting bass drum pedal pressure and hi-hat volleys with doorstopper resonation. Yet these and subsequent polyrhythmic snaps and taps from rims and cymbals conform easily with the others’ output. Ward shrills chirped notes, Llewellyn’s thunderous lower-pitched one and Fell’s ponticello sweeps fit it all together. Finally, there’s a coda of mewling smears from the clarinet, lip-buzzing police siren obbligatos from the horn and the drummer melds the textures with nearly weightless pings on his cymbals, likely produced by striking with the telescoped wire strands of brush handles. “Quartet”, with its whistling breaths and bleats from the French horn, reed-biting, purring whines and wiggles from the clarinet and ringing buoy approximations from the drummer works into a finale that’s all intermittent reed vibratos.

“Kandinsky Lines”, the final track also has much more to do with the timbres produced by the pizzicato and arco bass then the brush strokes of a painting. With the virtuosity you associate with jazzers, Fell bends spiccato playing and jettes to his purposes, creating tones from the four-string reminiscent of those you’d get from an upended guitar. Turning to the bow, his theme variations become more serene, finally mixing it up with elongated clarinet glissandi and plunger horn textures. With Sanders staying very much in the background, Fell’s echoing sul tasto and sul ponticello rhythms define the closing, with a coda made up of reed trilling, French horn vibrations and drum set tapping and popping.

His working group up until then, the quintet featured on CD1 intensifies the favorable impression it had already made with 2001’s THIRTEEN RECTANGLES on Bruce’s Fingers. Fell — obviously — and Ward are both present, along with trombonist Brand and drummer Noble. A prime addition is a pianist Alex Maguire, a longtime mate of Noble’s, whose other associations include Netherlands-based bands led by reedists Michael Moore and Sean Bergin.

“Gruppen Modulor 2” in five sections, is the core of this performance, with Fell likening this “nearer to modern jazz”, 24-minute plus composition influenced by Stockhausen, George Russell and architect Le Corbusier.

Architecturally, this sound edifice seems to have been reconfigured out of many already existing structures. Beginning in the house of jazz, the first few minutes are vaguely reminiscent of Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” with walking bass, extended flams and snare beats from the drums and carefully voiced, unison horn slurs and trills. As the clarinetist double tongues in the altissimo register, pedal pressure emphasis from the piano and metronome-like time keeping from percussion keep things on an even keel.

One third of the way through the variations take the form of ascending plunger notes from Brand and tap-dancing-like timbres from Noble’s brushes and snares. Soon sharp slurs and growls deliberately twirl in a form of brassy resonation from the ’bone, as Ward’s low-key, but polyphonic obbligatos suggest a double horn blend more related to Classic than so-called modern, jazz.

As the drummer maintains a uniform pulse, non-jazz, but still syncopated movements appear, as Maguire’s earlier comping takes on denser overtones causing Brand to relax into longer lines as well. Fell’s contribution takes the form of oscillating pedal point bowing, producing enough further theme variations that recapitulation of the initial theme almost passes by unnoticed. Finale features unforced piano keyboard dusting and lightly propelling trombone tones.

“Composition No. 40.5d: Trapped By Formalism 2” the almost 12½-minute piece with its mouthful of a title that precedes “Gruppen Modular” is called “probably the most notation-intensive piece in the quintet’s repertoire”. But even here the band’s familiarity with improv and jazz forms prevents it from being “trapped by formalism”.

Although the episodic first few minutes may relate to New music, a few bars after that the piece has opened up into semi-swinging calls-and-responses from the horns, high intensity piano tinkling, walking bass and downshifting drum beats. And it continues this way.

Showy, 19th century style piano cadenzas lead to whizzing contralto reed lines and modified plunger marching-band cadences as rattled and snapped clave notes rebound from the drum kit. Can it be cowbell rapping that’s heard as well? Should the trombone buzz and snicker, then the piano reverts to semi-romantic cadenzas. Further on, hard and heavy low-pitched brass grace notes mesh with the drummer’s backbeat, while a languid trombone line precede a loping section from all concerned — although Noble does sound as if he’s playing kettle drums. Brief single-note keyboard accents and vibrated horn harmonies make up the coda.

Putting aside rhetoric, these five and four-person aggregations appear to give composer Fell the perfect vehicles for his neither-fish-nor-fowl compositions that call on more than the jazz and improv traditions. On these CDs of exhilarating writing and performance, the quartet has a slight edge. Secondly, the creations also whet the appetite for further large-scale works from the composer.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: Disc one: SFQ1 - Three Quintets 1. Composition No. 50: Köln Klang 2. Composition No. 40.5d: Trapped By Formalism 2 3. Composition No. 62b: Gruppen Modulor 2: 3.1 Statement 1 3.2 Statement 2 3.3 Interlude 3. 4 Blues (Statement 3) 3.5 Coda Disc two: Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet 1. Liverpool 1a 2. Liverpool 1b 3. GM2 Blues 4. Quartet 5. Liverpool 2 6. GM3 Rhythm 7. Kandinsky Lines

Personnel: Disc one: Gail Brand (trombone); Alex Ward (clarinet); Alex Maguire (piano): Simon H. Fell (bass); Steve Noble (drums) Disc two: Guy Llewellyn (French horn); Alex Ward (clarinet); Simon H. Fell (bass); Mark Sanders (drums and electronics)