Scott Fields Ensemble

This American Life
NEOS Music 40806

Complete with the requisite word “American” in its title, Chicago-born Köln-based guitarist Scott Fields offers his vision of Americana on this CD, with themes ostensibly composed to be used by This American Life, a long-running radio program on Chicago’s WBEZ.

Before fearing that Fields has become a Bill Frisell doppelganger, wedded to country and folk-flavored tropes, his sardonic track explanations suggest otherwise. His comments about the show’s “carpetbagger” host scavenging music to be “sliced, diced, mixed, and fried” may prevent these themes from reaching their intended market. More to the point, each of the five tracks operates on multiple levels, with atonal and contrapuntal asides and extensions sneaking out from within the rolling, lyrical narratives.

Additionally, this American Life is played by two expatriate Yanks, one German and one Portuguese. In different combinations the other players have worked with Fields on earlier CDs. Texas-born cellist Scott Roller, who moved to Germany in 1984, usually works with New music ensembles such as Musikfabrik NRW, the Helios String Quartet and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern. German bassist Sebastian Gramss plays with saxophonist Frank Gratkowski and in the large James Choice Orchestra, while João Lobo, who is himself expatriated in Belgium, skillfully moves between playing jazz and Portuguese popular music.

Intricately connected throughout, most of the pieces evolve from Gramss’ brisk walking slaps and Lobo’s rhythmic rebounds, rolls and energetic drum head popping. Roller’s split tone excursions are so staccato and high-pitched that the resulting sounds often resemble those of a soprano saxophone as much as a string set. Meanwhile Fields plucks, twangs and pulses rarely push the tempo quicker than moderato.

Two instances of where this cohesion works are “Can He Make a W?” and “That and a Dime…” Taken languidly, the former depends on thick bass thumps and unforced drum drags as spidery guitar runs and cello portamento lead to cohesive trade-offs between the two string players. As the cellist’s tone becomes lighter, the piece climaxes with darker story-telling vamps from Fields.

In contrast “That and a Dime…” is heartier and heavier with stress provided by string drones. Then as Gramss gently and gradually modulates the underlying pulses, both the guitarist and cellist scrub and slap their strings to produce sharp, sweeping sul ponticello concordance. Later they divide, with Fields’ output feathery and delicate outlined against Roller’s glissandi. As these two unroll rubato pulses, the textures are complemented with walking connection from Gramss and Lobo’s clip-clopping shuffles. A final, speedier variation knits together Lobo’s pops, ruffs and drags, Fields’ buzzing runs and staccato pumps from the arco players.

Droll or not, snatches of these compositions may be unrecognizable if played between stories on This American Life – if that situation is actually possible. More fruitful for those who appreciate improvised music, would be to listen to this CD and the pieces in complete form.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Flatfooted Flatbroke 2. Can He Make a W? 3. Strange People Live Next Door 4. That and a Dime… 5. Dogs We Thought We Knew

Personnel: Scott Fields (guitar); Scott Roller (cello); Sebastian Gramss (bass) and

João Lobo (percussion)