SFQ  Four Compositions

[full press reviews]


"With this two-disc set of quintets and quartets, composer/bassist Simon Fell demonstrates that his brilliant eclecticism is as vibrant as ever. Several of Fell's influences are easy to discern. On SFQ1's Trapped By Formalism 2 one can hear early Stockhausen (think Kontakte) and middle period (pre-electric) George Russell quite clearly. The two strains - both certainly formal, but one "academic," the other "jazzy" - are braided together brilliantly. This may be "difficult" music, but it is also exuberant. Fell explicitly references both Russell and Stockhausen in his liner notes (he even calls one piece Gruppen Modulor 2), but the main point, of course, shouldn't really focus on from where but rather on where to, and the destinations here are uniformly worthy of intensive sightseeing. We should all by now recognize Fell's wonderful, if sometimes maniacal, counterpoint from his Composition No. 30 and his Thirteen Rectangles. One shudders at the rehearsal time that must have been expended on the SFQ1 pieces. Don't expect any high school ensembles to be tackling these soon. The gnarliest passages are all handled with ease by Fell's gang, however, as if they'd been memorized several weeks prior. While the free blowing here is limited, there are fine solos from all concerned on SFQ1 as well as on the subsequent disc. The two main differences between the three quintet pieces on disc one and the slightly later suite that constitutes Liverpool Quartet are that the Russell influence has almost disappeared, and somewhat less compositional direction is maintained on SFQ2. The quartet engages in considerably freer ensemble play, but the result is uniformly "classical," except in GM3 Rhythm where it's pretty straightforwardly Braxtonian. In any case, the walking bass passages seem to have mostly sauntered off (hand-in-hand with the necessity for 20-hour rehearsals) by the time SFQ2 was recorded. It shouldn't be inferred from this, however, that SFQ2 is haphazard. It also has a serious, though never solemn, feel. The Liverpool Quartet suite is generally more pointillistic than the earlier pieces (again excepting GM3 Rhythm), but doesn't seem more "spacious" for some reason. I find it a curious accident of history that in the "jazz" context, complete freedom has often seemed to result in a higher density of notes than more traditional compositions, while in the "classical" and ea-i contexts, complete freedom often produces many fewer notes per minute than something like, e.g., a Ferneyhough opus. I should point out, however, that, like Braxton, Fell is an absolute master of integrating composition and improvisation, so it's often quite difficult to guess which (if any) passages are entirely spontaneous creations. Finally, something that may (and, I think, should) also entice percussion fans is that both Sanders and Noble slam together crackling, electrifying solos - one on each disc." Walter Horn BAGATELLEN

"Bassist/composer Simon H. Fell is one of the leading lights of the British improv scene. Possessed with both striking ambition and a bounty of talent, Fell has been involved with a wealth of projects of all shapes and sizes, perhaps most significantly The London Improvisers Orchestra and the Hession/Wilkinson/Fell trio. Sadly, Fell continues to be somewhat under-recognized, despite his exceptional technical skills and compelling compositional aspirations. As for the latter, Fell's approach is formulated by the influence of a variety of sources, from "serious music" composers like Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and more recently, Harrison Birtwistle, to more "jazz" oriented forces like George Russell and Anthony Braxton, all in an attempt to "synthesize composition, improvisation and jazz". One of Fell's most satisfying projects is SFQ, his quintet and now, quartet, that focuses on his compositions. SFQ: Four Compositions holds exciting news, to say the least, that Fell has found a willing patron of his music in Michel Passaretti of Red Toucan. Disc one commences with the almost ten-minute classically-inspired piece Composition No. 50: Köln Klang, which begins with a hair-raising percussive stroke from both Maguire and Noble that appears periodically amidst Fell's almost silent arco work and Brand's glorious fluttering trombone. Up next is Composition No.40.5d: Trapped By Formalism, an investigation of the "more formalistic tendencies of post-war European modernism", which initially commences as a connect-the-dots venture before the quintet breaks into eight bars of swing time (reminiscent of the Thirteen Rectangles theme). The piece flourishes on its constant terrain shifts, though its crux is the interplay between Ward, Brand, and Maguire against the bristling energy from Fell and Noble, who are remarkable rhythm partners. Finally, the almost 25 minute Composition No. 62b: Grupen Modulor 2 concludes the session with a thrilling ride that combines a series of thematic material, pointillistic vigor, and spaciousness, mixed between five subsections. While Fell and Noble instigate the piece with their hard-driving interchange, Ward's wiry clarinet work soon takes the spotlight, followed later by Brand's airy sound collages and eventually, a midtempo swing vamp amidst the written horn charts. Maguire's strident piano lines race by blissfully, leading to Fell's emotive bass work before the piece smolders away to a hushed silence. The second disc consists of a single quartet performance of Fell's seven-part piece Composition No. 70, with Ward, French hornist Guy Llewellyn, and the remarkable percussionist Mark Sanders. As with the other SFQ pieces, this composition is just as demanding, with shifting schematics and a heightened sense of interplay among the musicians that call for them to improvise quite a bit more than the previous disc's tightly-scripted charts (though to be fair, it is quite difficult to tell the difference without looking at the charts). The first section, Liverpool 1a, commences with an introspective theme before Ward's dramatic dashes stir amidst Sanders' rousing undulations and, eventually, the extended lines from Fell's arco and Llewellyn's gentle burrs. Liverpool 1b is an immediately forceful endeavor, with the swirling horns juxtaposed against Fell and Sanders' bustle before visiting more abstract realms. For those looking for some solid work in the Braxtonian vein, go no further than GM2 Blues with its opening thematic discourse leading to charged interplay, particularly from Llewellyn who works particularly well when coaxed by Fell's rubbery arco and Sanders' nimble brushwork. The piece later turns into a meditative journey, with Ward becoming peaceful amidst Sanders clattering percussion. The freely improvised Quartet is up next, a ghostly journey with an innate sense of urgency, which folds into Liverpool 2, a feature for Sanders' exquisite cadences, with the rest of the group following his lead. The Braxton-tinged GM3 Rhythm and its thematic signals appear again, with the horn's clipped tones and Ward's spiky clarinet maneuvers. Finally, the suite concludes with Kandinsky Lines, a feature for Fell's adroit arco tones. Four Compositions is another in a series of not-to-be-missed records from the courageous Fell. Utilizing his broad influences, Fell has crafted these statements into a singular vision that is both a challenge and delight for listener and performer alike. If you miss this one, you are missing out big time." Jay Collins ONE FINAL NOTE

"Two unreleased albums by Britain's great present day composer brought together by a distinguished Montreal label. Having proved his mettle both as an improvisor and a composer for orchestral forces (the astonishing Compilation series), in 2003/4 Fell wrote for small groups. The way he focuses on a particular project, finishes it, and then releases excellent recordings of the work is exceptionally satisfying. Composition No. 50: Köln Klang hinges on the contrast between a magnificent cluster from Maguire-piano harmonics that will test your system and intimiste (obscene?) improv from the others. The quartet (Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet) pursues the close dialogue between compositional blocks and improvisation pioneered by Anthony Braxton, but is here realised with a finesse, commitment and undimmed personality which put Braxton's recent student bands to shame. Indeed, some of Ward's quick turns - wild humour and fierce speculation Chinese-puzzled into inextricable knots - will have you gawping. Not just important music but a mighty hinge for the future of jazz." Ben Watson HIFI NEWS

"Though both discs of this set are credited to SFQ, they are the work of two very different ensembles. Disc one, recorded in 2003, contains three pieces performed by the Thirteen Rectangles band: clarinettist Alex Ward, trombonist Gail Brand, pianist Alex Maguire and drummer Steve Noble, in addition to Fell himself on bass. Köln Klang is a rather inscrutable composition "inspired by and partly depicting the soundworld of a hotel bedroom in Köln." (My impression is that the soundworld in question involved church bells and snoring.) Trapped by Formalism 2 is a collapsing-wedding-cake of a piece bookended by a barrage of fragments and an aphoristic piano coda. Gruppen Modulor 2 is the longest of the three, at 24 minutes, and falls into five distinct parts: a frenzied introduction, a clangy drum feature overlaid by stiff Braxtonian horns, a subdued trombone/clarinet/piano trio, a somewhat ungainly freebop "Blues" (sic: it doesn't sound like a blues at all) that prompts a stunning solo from Maguire, and a cryptic, drawn-out coda. On disc two the band now consists of Ward, Fell, French-horn player Guy Llewellyn, and drummer Mark Sanders. Though Fell says the music is "less jazz orientated", the open textures and seamless knitting-together of improvisation and composition make it more familiar territory for the jazz/improv fan than disc 1. As usual with Fell, there's nothing obvious about how it's put together. In addition to the three Liverpool pieces (numbered 1a, 1b and 2) there are two cut-ins from the Gruppen Modulor series (a tempestuous free-jazz reading of GM2 Blues and the Braxton-goes-samba GM3 Rhythm), a whistling-wind Quartet that appears to be entirely improvised and a stripped-down coda built around Fell's arco bass, Kandinsky Lines. Llewellyn's obviously a player to watch: he's a powerhouse on an instrument usually considered a tough go for improvised music, and his work on GM2 Blues is little short of astonishing. Sanders' slippery-eel drumming makes a huge difference to the band sound: with his acute ear for colour he makes the air come alive with subtle washes of overtones. But it's Alex Ward who pulls off the disc's biggest coup on Liverpool 1a with a clarinet solo like a half-pierced dream, tender and self-consuming, full of charged, quick-evaporating insights. If you want a single reason to get the album, Ward's solo is enough: it's simply one of the best improvised statements I've heard in recent years. As for the rest of Four Compositions, I'm sure Fell would prefer I called it "frigid" and "intractable", but I'm afraid I'll just have to settle for "outstanding" and - horror of horrors - "highly enjoyable"." Nate Dorward PARIS TRANSATLANTIC

"British composer Simon H. Fell has documented his long form orchestral works to much critical acclaim in the recent past. In an interview with the Austrian magazine JazzLive, from 1998, Fell mentioned having begun work on a series of smaller quartet and quintet pieces. Deriving his inspiration from the classic Braxton and Coltrane quartets, Fell demonstrates a keen understanding of the myriad virtues of those quintessential ensembles. These elaborate small group recordings will undoubtedly win him the same sort of critical acclaim as his recent large scale works. An inspired combination of the likes of Boulez, Schoenberg, and Braxton, as well as Stockhausen and George Russell's pre-electric work, this hybrid music is part of a small but fertile tradition. Episodic in the extreme, modulating between acerbic Freebop and sinuous chamber music, these long form compositions require more than a casual listen. There is a compositional complexity to these pieces that is more commonly found in the contemporary classical world than the Jazz idiom. Composition No. 40.5d: Trapped By Formalism quickly segues into a sprightly walking bass line, complete with knotty intertwined horn lines and pulse-driven trap set work. Composition No. 62b: Gruppen Modulor 2 arrives full-blown, crashing out of the gate with bristling counterpoint and a driving rhythm, building to sinuous unison head melodies and more incendiary interplay, leavened with the occasional solo cadenza. Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet occupies the entire duration of the second disc, and it is as circuitous a journey as the first disc's compositions. Opening with bowed bass and sporadic angular unison horn lines, the piece begins like a methodical chamber quartet recital. The serenity doesn't last however as an agitated free form collective improvisation soon interrupts the orderly proceedings only to mutate again into a brashly swinging angular Freebop line. By the halfway mark, the ensemble has navigated its way back down into barely audible pointillism. And so it goes, back and forth, the entire ensemble shifting on a dime between stylistic extremes. Featuring gnarly counterpoint, telepathic call and response sections, collective improvisation, dynamic tempo shifts and solo cadenzas, this is all-encompassing music, bridging the tenuous divide between the composed and improvised. With an ensemble so perfectly in tune with the composer's conception, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the improvised from the composed on these pieces. For those looking for the future of creative improvised music, Four Compositions is a must-have album." Troy Collins CADENCE

"Köln Klang is a dark and mysterious work, closer to modern classical and quite sparse in places, with a recurring motif of a short, violent piano and drum eruption. Trapped by Formalism 2 is collection of excerpts from different genres, high speed bebop turns into freer jazz meets modern classical, ultra tight and quick changing. This is certainly a challenge for the quintet, yet it remains focused and fascinating throughout. Gruppen Modulor 2 features a few different themes running simultaneously and reminds me Braxton, picture his quartet from the mid-seventies with George Lewis, Dave Holland & Barry Altschul. Alex Maguire's Cecil Taylor piano is especially amazing, as well as Fell's great bass playing and solo. The great disc 2 quartet perform a 7 part work Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet, inspired by Harrison Birtwistle and Igor Stravinsky. Most impressive here is the superb clarinet playing of Alex Ward, which must navigate some rather difficult charts, diverse dynamics, while exchanging an ongoing dialogue with the intricacies of the other three musicians. Mr. Fell has a wonderful way of demanding the most from his players, it is impossible to tell which is written and which is improvised since the thread which runs through all of it is so clear. Obviously, one of this year's best and most challenging releases." BLG DOWNTOWN MUSIC GALLERY

"Simon Fell is probably England's most distinguished composer for improvisers... he's a Lenin in a sea of mediocre anarchy." Ben Watson RESONANCE FM

"This is indeed a wonderful album." ND BAGATELLEN

"Simon H. Fell is very well known for his improvising talents on double bass; this release showcases his more 'regulated' kind of compositions, where all the participants' skills contribute to achieve the difficult aim of a 'moderately free' chamber sound that is neither sterile nor academic. Three Quintets features Alex Ward (clarinet) Gail Brand (trombone) Alex Maguire (piano) and Steve Noble (drums) and it's a kind of a study in dynamics and contemporary swing, where the equiponderance of the instrumental tasks is fundamental in guaranteeing a purposeful determination in tackling all that passes between silence and full-speed blowouts. Ward's clarinet also graces the second CD Liverpool Quartet together with Guy Llewellyn on french horn and Mark Sanders on drums and electronics. The stylistic coherence remains, while the timbral research is even more tireless; contrarily to certain free-for-all stampedes currently defined as 'new music', the fluttering subsistence of schematic paths leaves all spaces to a relaxed animation of various triangulations of rational elegance." Massimo Ricci TOUCHING EXTREMES

"Conceived as two separate albums, but released by the Montreal imprint Red Toucan as a two-CD set (which is all the better), Four Compositions presents two different SFQ lineups tackling Simon H. Fell's uniquely complex and intricate writing in studio and live settings. Recorded by the brilliant engineer Steve Lowe at Gateway Studio, disc one features three pieces, interpreted by a quintet version of Fell's group, including Alex Ward on clarinet, trombonist Gail Brand, Alex Maguire at the piano, and drummer Steve Noble. Composition No. 50: Köln Klang and Composition No. 40.5d: Trapped by Formalism 2 are both difficult pieces requiring several attentive listens. The first one is a structured improvisation articulating sparse elements into a cold, detached organism. The second piece applies formalist techniques to this improviser's ensemble, with dizzying results. But the highlight of this first disc is Composition No. 62b: Gruppen Modulor 2, a complex multi-part work presented by Fell as being drawn from his preparatory studies for Compilation IV. Disc two is given entirely to Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet, a work in seven sections. Recorded live, with a slightly spacier sound, this performance alternates between arid dead-serious sections (Liverpool 1a, Kandinsky Lines) and more vivid episodes (GM2 Blues, GM3 Rhythm), including a freely improvised Quartet. Simon H. Fell's music, especially his compositions, always require several listens before revealing all of their intricacies and features. Some listeners see it as preciousness; others as depth and intelligence. Four Compositions, in that regard, is no different from the previous SFQ release or the Compilation series: if you make the effort to track it down, you might as well make the effort to unlock its mysteries." François Couture ALL MUSIC GUIDE

"Composition and structure, improvisation and the use of space, time gathered and broken down, music notated and musicians given the leeway to go beyond. From this amalgam the music of Simon H. Fell rises, often with a slow deliberation, at times with emphasis, at times in a cloak of silence. The two discs that comprise this double set by SFQ are different in their evolution and resolution. The first is more abstract, making greater use of space-some of which is left empty, or filled by silence if you will. Trapped by Formalism 2 has a sense of forward motion but continuity is chopped, the fragments linked by the ticking of time. The progression breaks up but is not made whole, and the shards of that emphasis can be prickly. The quartet music on disc two is cohesive and has more body. Classical themes evolve and are developed, even if that identifiable trait of quietude manifests itself. But in this instance it is not a trying proposition. As a matter of fact, it adds a dimension to the thematic structure. While that style has its play and gets its strength from Alex Ward on clarinet and Guy Llewellyn on french horn, both of whom open pristine thoughts, free jazz gets its due on Liverpool 1b, scuffled into being by Fell on the bass, after which come the squiggles, the looping lines and the tweak of electronics. Both streams are inspired. The two different approaches coalesce into a whole for a provocative picture of the art of Fell." Jerry D'Souza ALL ABOUT JAZZ

"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. 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 Mingusian 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. Kandinsky Lines 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 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, a 24-minute plus composition influenced by Stockhausen, George Russell and architect Le Corbusier. 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. 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. Composition No. 40.5d: Trapped By Formalism 2 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. 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. 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 JAZZWORD

"With his numbered compositions, dense annotations, and an apparently voracious appetite for the jerky, atonal and esoteric, it's tempting to compare bassist/composer Simon Fell to Anthony Braxton. Also like Braxton, Fell blurs the line between composition and improvisation, as well as matching jazz's instrumentation and some of its rhythmic sense with classical rigor and ambition. However, Braxton's small group outings usually include at least one engaging post-Ornette romp. On Four Compositions (a 2 CD set combining a quintet session from 2003 with a quartet from a year later, with only Fell and clarinetist Alex Ward appearing on both), the most accessible piece is Köln Klang, with a "head" consisting of a piano thud and solos made up of unpitched, near-silent sounds. Ward turns in a bravura display of avant-clarinet work on both sessions, pianist Alex Maguire (on disc one) shows a particular ability to devise gripping statements within Fell's frameworks, and drummers Steve Noble (disc one) and Mark Sanders (disc two) generate energy while seldom resorting to heavy-handedness. There's intrigue in Fell's lines, resourcefulness in his sonic explorations and heat in his group's climaxes." Pat Buzby SIGNAL TO NOISE

"Featuring concrète snapshots acoustically portrayed, post-serialist contemporary music linguistic developments with standard jazz fragments, and free improvisational overtly soaked-in-noise textures, this carefully performed, documented and researched work miraculously presents an exception to an under-funded musical environment." MODISTI


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