The Society of the Spectacle

Bruce’s Fingers BF 31

Chapters in what could be termed the parallel life of Simon H. Fell, these CDs expose the free improvisational side of the British bassist, whose usual renown is for partially notated compositions for massive orchestras plus electronically oriented music for strings and percussion.

BOGEY’S recorded in 1991, and THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE captured nearly 12 years later, are significant wedges of instant composition, performed by two different trios. With Fell’s double bass the only constant, BOGEY’S features his longtime playing partners, Alan Wilkinson on alto and baritone saxophones and wilkophone (sic) plus Paul Hession on drums. Described elsewhere as HWF, this band contrasts with the 10-year-old Badland trio that is filled out by alto saxophonist Simon Rose and percussionist Steve Noble. Coincidentally Noble recently recorded a trio CD with Wilkinson and veteran bassist Marcio Mattos.

Significant for the calibre of improvisation that exists on each disc, scrutinizing the two side by side is even more fascinating. It proves that during those dozen years Free Improvisation has changed immeasurably. Back in 1991, the HWF trio was pouring out maximal energy music conversant with the vocabulary of Free Jazz. By 2003, the catchphrase is minimalism, as the first part of the CD’s program is rife with measured gestures. But, similarities exist as well. For while SOCIETY’s first four tracks relate to microtonal New Music and near-silent, reductionism, the final four re-introduce dynamic go-for-broke soloing – related to how bands improvised in the early 1990s.

Consisting of two half-hour-plus tracks and a seven minute interlude BOGEY’S was originally recorded on a Walkman and released on cassette. Rehabilitated for CD, the trio’s sound is fine, although a few surreal moments occur when the boisterous crowd at this Huddersfield gig carries on conversations at the same volume as the improvisers, and when one punter decides that his – her ? – rhythmic clapping is the perfect accompaniment to trio interface that gets unexpectedly quiet.

Not that quiet is the first adjective you would associate with this disc. Comfortably slotted in the school of emotional glossolalia, Wilkinson never seems to neglect an opportunity to scream multiphonics through his horn; compound altissimo squeals with falsetto or phrase-stuttering; or triple-tongue any note in his immediate vicinity. Rumbling and banging on his kit, Hession – who knows a thing or two about unbridled sax playing having recorded with Mick Beck and George Haslam in his time – gives as good as he gets. Plus Fell can slap and vibrate his strings as well as any jazzbo.

If Wilkinson is the Free Jazz Frankenstein monster constructed out of equal parts of Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann – and that’s a compliment – then Rose is both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Calmer, slower-paced and with the Onkyo-like patterns seemingly produced with minimal effort, the first figure lulls the listener – and his band mates who respond with distracted accompaniment – until transformation occurs at mid-point. Coarse Mr. Hyde is in ascendancy after that. Heavily-breathed multiphonics, frantic altissimo trills and split-tone exertion demand equal brawn from the other two. Noble’s John Henry-like pounding on “Snipe” easily matches Hession’s on the other CD.

Back in 1991, the saxophonist’s lung-scraping blows and stuttering reed pressure is expressed at pitches ranging from yakity-sax falsetto to pedal point bow resonation and at different tempos as well. On “First Bogey” for instance, half-way through, after it appears the trio’s output couldn’t get any more forceful, this false climax is revealed for what it is, and the tempo picks up once again. Wilkinson’s irregular vibrations are turned into double-tonguing and looping patterns, while Hession contributes ruffs and pops from his snares, and rattles and scratches from the cymbals, while Fell sounds col legno squeaks and shrill sul ponticello motions. Finally, when it seems as if his instrument isn’t tough enough to express his mounting agitation, Wilkinson begins spewing verbal nonsense syllables. Combing forces, the other two’s display of power chording gradually reduces the interface to moderato.

More of the same – but longer – “Second Bogey” finds the trio burying audience members’ out-of-tempo scattered clapping and guttural cat-calling with a few minutes of hocketing rooster-crowing cackles from the saxophonist and a double-stopping interlude of sul ponticello double bass lines. Interestingly enough, two-thirds of the way through, a calmer double-stopping interlude of slower-paced bass notes and lower-pitched growls from the saxophonist suggest what Badland would be involved with 15 years later.

This sound-and-silence predilection is showcased at the top of SPECTACLE. Here the warbles and tongue stops of Rose’s sax, mixed with woody echoes from Fell’s bass and irregular staccato pulses from Noble’s kit, are as languid and unforced as WHF’s timbres are intense. The key track is “Nissa” where all the splayed and singular individual patterns polyphonically expressed earlier on seems to fuse and harden. Having already emphasized pause and silences within extended improvisations, Rose withdraws to such an extent that he appears to be merely expelling whispered timbres underneath flanging cymbal whooshes from Noble and sul tasto sweeps from Fell.

While it may appear that Rose’s background in World Music, specifically Nigeria, Asian and South American, and Noble’s experience with combos featuring pianist Alex Maguire and guitarist Derek Bailey may have caused this volte face from Energy Music, the band surprises in the first seconds of the next track, “Society of the Spectacle (Part 1)”, where a press roll bombardment from Noble’s kit and pressured bass slices can make you jump. Suddenly altissimo, Rose is honking and snorting with vibrating metal from inside the body tube, as Noble doubles his impulses with marimba-like reflecting pulses.

Reinforced and toughened vibrations characterize the remainder of the disc as Rose’s timbres sway and curve with squealing multiphonics, Fell swipes and pitchslides, and Noble not only exercises the regular parts of his kit, but strikes miniature bells for additional textures.

Fell fans, those who yearn for the glory days of Energy Music and those interested to see how Free Music has evolved in a decade-and-a-half will be attracted to these discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Badland: 1. Kittiwake 2. Elka 3. Society of the Spectacle (Part 2) 4. Nissa 5. Society of the Spectacle (Part 1) 6. Mia 7. Snipe 8. Reeds in the Western World

Personnel: Badland: Simon Rose (alto saxophone); Simon H. Fell (bass); Steve Noble (percussion)

Track Listing: Bogey: 1. First Bogey 2. The Assumption 3. Second Bogey

Personnel: Bogey: Alan Wilkinson (alto and baritone saxophones, wilkophone); Simon H. Fell (bass); Paul Hession (drums)