Thirteen Rectangles

SFQ  Thirteen Rectangles  

[full press reviews]


"Outstanding! Simon Fell is at the forefront of developing musical structures which release - rather than constrain - his collaborators." Jez Nelson JAZZ ON 3, BBC RADIO 3

Nominated for the 'new work' award; BBC Jazz Awards 2002

"Captured in one breathtaking take, Thirteen Rectangles is an exceptional work. Even though the piece is scored for small group, Fell thinks big, leaving plenty of room for solo playing. The asymmetrical swing of the matching sequences bookending the work recall Anthony Braxton's writing for jazz chamber orchestra. The music in between draws jazz, free Improvisation and post-serial composition into the same gravitational field, where they hybridise and mutate. It's edgy and insistent, characterised by "neurotic rhythms". The players chisel away repeatedly at Fell's deliberately meagre allocation of thematic material, but he has jettisoned the formulaic cycles of standard jazz composition in favour of "mobile form". Written and improvised passages are heard in combination throughout. This complex, stimulating simultaneity sets up exhilarating juxtapositions and conjunctions that rise through the music's continually shifting layers. Fell strives to actualise the music he wants to hear but which doesn't yet exist. His creative vision and individual labour might prepare the ground, but it's the personality and abilities of the performers that bring his concept to fruition. He's fortunate to have such dedicated, ingenious collaborators, who each bring a distinctive slant to unlock the composition's abundant potential." Julian Cowley THE WIRE

"By any account, Simon Fell is one of the most important musicians working today. As improviser, composer, and musical organizer, the depth and range of his music is truly staggering. Throw on the onslaught of Hession/Wilkinson/Fell's The Horrors Of Darmstadt, the microscopic reductivism of IST's Ghost Notes and the multi-layered compositional form of Composition No. 30: Compilation III back to back and it seems almost incomprehensible that they are all facets of the same musician. Until, that is, one takes a more careful listen. Because at the root of these diverse sonic explorations is an insatiable fascination with the intersections (and contrasts) between structure and collective, spontaneous improvisation and a finely honed attention to density, timbre, and textures. This can sometimes make for demanding listening, but with Fell, it always pays off. Like Anthony Braxton's quartet music, Fell here has assembled a multi-layered music out of a series of overlapping events, composed with the specific players in mind. The extended suite is comprised of tight collective counterpoint, lithe sub-groupings, and heated solos. Any of the players can pick up a thread and run with it, either as a solo voice or superimposing refractions of time, theme, or ensemble textures. Recorded in one take, the mutable amalgam of improvisation and composition can swing like mad or move into thorny freedom with split-second shifts of direction as the focus moves around the ensemble. This is a startling and exhilarating work that easily shoots to the top of any list of the year's best releases." Michael Rosenstein SIGNAL TO NOISE

"For those unfamiliar with Fell, he is one of England's and perhaps the world's most creative bassists and composers. Fell, like so many other talented and creative improvisers, continues to have a low profile, which is unfortunate as his technical and compositional abilities are both compelling and unique. That being said, these three releases (Axis Of Cavity, Thirteen Rectangles & Improvabilly) demonstrate that he is not afraid of taking significant risks in order to make absorbing music that pushes the envelope far into the 21st century. Simply put, Thirteen Rectangles is a major work and thus, is one of the most important releases of 2002. Fells goal is to utilize a compositional form in a way that is structured, yet allows the musicians the freedom to "invert, alter, pervert or ignore" the structure altogether. Such a mindset paves the way for evolution as each individual musician's contribution adds shape to the total whole. On the whole, this is a progressive piece of music that sounds as if Fell's influences range from Mingus and Braxton to 20th Century classical. It is demanding not only on the listener, but also the musicians, as it is filled with advanced rhythmic and harmonic ideas. Perhaps most interesting is that as one listens to the piece, although two or three recurrent themes appear throughout, it is difficult to tell the difference between the composed and improvised portions unless one is reading the score simultaneously. SFQ is comprised of some of the London improvised music scene's most important young musicians and, due to the complexity of Thirteen Rectangles, requires excellent musicianship. Fell's collective is up to the task, each adding their own style, yet pulling off the difficult passages. The different rectangles provoke different moods and sounds, as heated exchanges, quiet meditative passages, out and out blues, swing or total abstraction are all heard. Another enticing aspect of this work is the way that groupings are encouraged, as the soloists separate into groups within the larger quintet. Particularly compelling are the clarinetist Alex Ward and Fell on Rectangle 2, pianist Alex Maguire and trombonist Gail Brand on Soft Hard (Interpolation 2) or Wand and Brand on Rectangle 8. This performance commences with Start Frame + Soft Hard (Interpolation 1), a bouncy angular theme with Bop-influenced notions. This theme appears throughout, in different permutations, but also closes the performance as a fitting summation of all that has come before, a tying up all loose ends into a unified whole. The brilliant clarinet playing of Ward is introduced right at the start. He is the standout soloist here, consistently inventive and versatile, whether called upon for slight, staccato lines, slurs in the tradition of Jimmy Hamilton (Rectangle 8) or swirling, unraveling note clusters. Noble is mostly in the colorist mode here, whether the piece demands floating cymbals (Rectangle 2), rumbling toms (Rectangles 4 & 5), spacey, nimble brushwork (Soft Hard [Interpolation 2]), or bluesy timekeeping (Rectangle 9). Brand's contributions are valued throughout whether as a provocateur (check out her plunger work) or as a soloist. Maguire is also commanding and creative, whether asked to generate Cecil Tayloresque mayhem, subtle chord sequences or long, flowing legato lines. As for Fell, there is not much more to add that has not been stated above, as his acrobatics do not subside. In sum, this is an engrossing piece, at a hair over 70 minutes in duration, requiring undivided attention. It is sure to be a divisive piece as well, given its ambitious nature. I found it to be a rewarding listen and frankly, have reached the conclusion that Fell has truly created his masterpiece." Jay Collins CADENCE

"Unmissable." THE GUARDIAN

"A witty, swinging and joyfully audacious synthesis of free improvisation, experimental jazz and modernist composition." LMC

"Fell left listeners slack-jawed with astonishment at his amazing bass playing; SFQ is a superb band featuring the cream of London's younger free jazz scene." JAZZ NORTH EAST

"An astonishing contemporary improvisation project, using the medium of experimental jazz to explore hitherto undiscovered sonic dimensions." COLCHESTER ARTS CENTRE

"Bassist and composer Simon Fell is not restricted by the boundaries of tradition. Instead he creates his own sound-world in which he seamlessly fuses elements of jazz, contemporary composition and improvisation to form a unique genre. This music will shock, surprise, astound and quite possibly grab you by the scruff of your neck and shake you. It's not easy listening; this music will challenge the mind and assault the senses. A restless musicians, Fell has spent much of the past 20 years refining his own distinctive style, and the unearthly noises which emanate from his double bass are worth missing Eastenders for." Shelley Jamison THE LEEDS GUIDE

"In the context of Sonic Youth's embrace of 'noise', where a mistaken - hazy and depoliticised - notion of '60s freedom has been mixed with dubious poses derived from the Velvet Underground and marketed as 'avant', bassist/composer Simon Fell's crystalline music is like a bucket of water so chill it's icy. Although he uses the full capabilities of his non-pareil improvisors, as tunesmith Fell is picking up on mid-'70s Anthony Braxton, when that amazing saxophonist was developing something new in terms of composition. Braxton's retooled, digital bebop is evoked by the opener Start Frame + Soft Hard (Interpolation 1). Nonchalant swing (Rectangle 1) becomes a symbol of openness to irrelevant pleasures. The way quasi-traditional forms (Rectangle 6 is a New Orleans strut, Rectangle 10 a blues) break into abstraction is seamless. Fell hears the pressures and tensions of modernists like Varèse and Feldman in jazz, so this is not some polystylistic experiment in collage and the music is mercifully free of the tongue-in-cheek smartness of the downtown crew. The musicians play in parallel lines, accumulating arguments which may suddenly explode into transgressive outbursts, giving the music the poignancy and tension of first time sex between besotted lovers. The last time anything as pure as Rectangle10 was recorded in England, it was by Joe Harriott. On Rectangle 11, the combination of puttering clarinet, bowed bass and skittering drums is strikingly novel. By Rectangle 13 just scraps and smears are left, like groaning survivors after a skirmish. Thirteen Rectangles has the sense of wrestling with the difficult matter provided by Paul Rutherford's group Iskra in the early '70s. Today's scene badly needs this earnestness. A:1*" Ben Watson HIFI NEWS

"SFQ is a wonderful coalescence of improvisational and classically-educated talent to bring to bear on these fourteen Fell compositions, which he describes as 'mobile form jazz composition' - with "extremely complex notated material" that "never restricts the musicians' ability to invent, alter, pervert or ignore" the scores. This music is splendidly various; dipping deeply into density/lack of density, group-haste vs. turn-taking, dramatic blasts and plosives neighbored by wind song, cloud-tones and mist." THE UNHEARD MUSIC

a Wire record of the year 2002

"Thirteen combines notated and improvised material using the literal reading of color blocks to determine written material, pitch range use and tone colors. All recorded in one take, the excellence of the disc is as much a tribute to the cumulative talents of the five musicians as the bassist's writing and arranging skills. This shouldn't been confused with those attempts at jazz revivalism practiced by neo-cons however. No running through of standards with standard voicings, this music can be seen as the spiritual extension of, to coin a phrase, the sort of experimental hard bop that people like Gigi Gyrce, Benny Golson and Oliver Nelson created. Another difference is the instrumental make up of the band. Tony Scott was probably the only (hard) bop clarinetist, but Ward, a long time associate of drummer Noble, welcomes POMO influences, having played with musicians as different as Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne and Morris. Trombonist Brand, one of the most impressive brass soloists of her generation, is part of the Lunge group with Phil Durrant on violin and electronics, Pat Thomas on keyboards and electronics plus percussionist Mark Sanders, another Fell associate. Maguire, another mate of Noble's, studied with John Cage as well as jazz pianists, and now performs in jazz groups led by saxophonists like the American Michael Moore, the South African Sean Bergin and Briton Elton Dean. Long-time Fell fans will probably note the prototypical chromatic passing tones in his walking bass lines. That's because the quarter note rhythm is often needed to showcase the subtle historical jazz references in this almost-continuous piece. Early on, a Brand and Noble exchange come across as if they were a supersonic version of Curtis Fuller and Art Blakey. Much later, with her plunger mute - and perhaps tongue - firmly in place, a quasi-Trad section unrolls, with the trombonist in the Kid Ory role, Ward coming across like Jimmy Noone and Noble smashing out hard two beats like a reincarnated Baby Dodds. While all this is going on, however, Fell produces metallic-sounding scratches from his bass, a sequel to his earlier nearly inaudible solo -- turn the volume knob way up to hear it -- where you can hear him bowing and scraping simultaneously. Not only does he explore the bass's darker regions, but he also tortures the wood to get unexpected tones. Historical parallelism isn't all that's on offer however. Midway through the suite, one track finds Ward dedicating one part of a solo that morphs from sparrow to cricket tones to a fast, clean, almost Benny Goodman-like light sound. Other times when Maguire sounds out those familiar left-handed, jazz-chords, it appears that Fell is torn between walking like Paul Chambers or slapping the bass like Pops Foster. Eventually he decides to do both. Later, clarinet key pops are met with flowing arco bass swoops, which -- with the pianist suddenly presenting what sound like conventional romantic themes from his keys -- could for a short time be mistaken for a chamber recital as the clarinetist joins the piano and bass with his most legit-sounding tone on the disc. That lasts until basso smears from the trombone and differing percussion patterns fragment the piece into improvisation. One could go on trying to describe further patterns, as when the low notes of the trombone's theme move in counterpoint to squeaky clarinet lines, or when two or three instruments combine into small groupings, before breaking off, amoebae-like, into several other links. What's most impressive is that Fell doesn't draw attention to this musical legerdemain, but subtly allows things to change organically, so that the next section has begun almost before you remark upon the change. All in all, it would seem obvious that Fell has solved the puzzle of how to successfully write an extended work for a classic jazz combo with Thirteen and produced remarkable sounds with that group." Ken Waxman JAZZ WEEKLY

"Long hailed as one of the finest bassist/composers to grace Britain's always flourishing modern/free jazz arena, Simon H. Fell has released much of his most prolific work on his Bruce's Fingers label. With this outing, he leads a quintet through fourteen interrelated pieces, distinguished by various degrees of momentum and complex, harmonic formations. Fell and associates implement geometrically inclined themes to coincide with gobs of heated and/or subdued improvisational episodes. The band can also swing, amid abstract doses of traditional jazz concepts and free style opuses. The bassist enables his musical associates with the ability or option to reconfigure themes and time signatures. Fell provides the instrumentalists with a great deal of flexibility - where they can veer off and alter the inherent compositional forms, yet not stray too far off course. This compelling effort should rouse the interests of the avant-gardists, modernists and whomever else might be up for the occasion. (Recommended...)" Glenn Astarita ALL ABOUT JAZZ

"Here we have new experimentation from Simon H. Fell and friends. This time the context is closer to standard jazz and makes the experimentation and improvisation a little bit more accessible to ears that are not accustomed to them. Here the piano played by Alex Maguire is playing improvised lines and melodies while the winds section is doing the most extreme sounds. Simon Fell's double bass pays from walking bass lines to improvised phrases interacting really well with drummer Steve Noble (who is the one that changes rhythms really often here taking the band to new rhythmic lands). It is incredible how this musicians can experiment freely and at the same time don't loose control of what they are playing, being really coherent and full of virtuosism." MUSIC EXTREME

"In Thirteen Rectangles, Simon H. Fell, composer and bassist of SFQ, has conceived a score that, intentionally or not, draws upon precedents established not only by John La Porta and other '50s jazz innovators like George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre (and, more recently, Anthony Braxton), but also composers Roman Haubenstock-Ramati and Earle Brown. Elsewhere, Fell has concocted interesting vehicles for improvisers in both controlled large ensemble and free-jazz settings; here he has devised a structure, partly notated and partly improvised, seemingly inspired by Brown and Haubenstock-Ramati's aleatoric and graphic scores, and the latter's literal suggestion that "I am personally astounded that even today one does not play Kandinsky or Miro, even though it would be so simple and easy to do so." Using Kandinsky's painting Thirteen Rectangles as formal reference, Fell has organized a multi-sectional work that is not divided, suite-like, into separate movements, but flows uninterrupted through related episodes of swing, backbeat, and open rhythms. The primary soloists - Alex Ward on clarinet, Gail Brand on trombone, and pianist Alex Maguire - make use of contemporary extended techniques on their instruments, including microtones and sound colors, and are provided a looser harmonic and gestural framework than La Porta would have allowed in his time. As a result, the music generates more spontaneous counterpoint, with a variety of textures and a dramatic thrust that is frequently aggressive, occasionally turbulent." Art Lange FANFARE

" À la tête de sa propre formation, le compositeur et contrebassiste Simon H. Fell conduit Thirteen Rectangles, meilleur exemple en date de la haute teneur de ses intentions musicales. Ouvert au son de ce qui pourrait être un hommage à l'Out to Lunch de Dolphy (Start Frame), c'est à quelques uns des employeurs du saxophoniste et clarinettiste que l'enregistrement fait ensuite référence: Oliver Nelson et Gunther Schuller, influences évidentes de Fell, persuadé qu'il n'est pas vain, aujourd'hui encore, d'interroger cette mixture réconciliante qu'est le Third Stream. Alors, sur Thirteen Rectangles, écriture et improvisation se mêlent, toutes deux servis par des musiciens de taille, qui défendent les desseins de Fell avec ferveur et efficacité, jusqu'à faire de cet enregistrement un des disques les plus convaincants de ceux qui plaident en faveur des contrastes que créent l'imbrication du swing et des dissonances, de la préciosité d'exécution et de l'épanchement hors-cadre. " Grisli dMUTE

"As 'less is more' is a musical device often used, why not also the opposite 'more is more'? Fell is dedicated to the second principle: lengthy compositions, big ensembles, integrating many influences, etc. In all respects Fell is a guy who does not choice the easy way. Thirteen Rectangles is a 70-minute giant composition Fell composed for the quintet SFQ, inspired by a painting of the same name by Kandinsky. I was completely absorbed by it. It switches from very swinging parts to very modern composed new music. Leaving room for solo excursions by all musicians, so also for improvisation. I especially liked the playing of Ward. No easy listening, but very well structured and condensed music. A great work! Truly amazing how many ideas pass by and make up one work." Dolf Mulder VITAL WEEKLY


return to the Thirteen Rectangles order page

return to recordings index page

return to main Bruce's Fingers index page

 click here to join the Bruce's Fingers mailing list and be automatically informed about all new releases, forthcoming gigs and special offers