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Art Lange      Premise: What the 1980s were for midsized ensembles in jazz, so this decade is becoming for large ensembles. That is, the effect that such bands as the David Murray Octet, Henry Threadgill Sextett, Edward Wilkerson Jr’s Eight Bold Souls, Anthony Davis’ Episteme, the Guus Janssen Septet, and Willem Breuker Kollektief, among others, had on the expansion of compositional strategies in an otherwise primarily improvisational format has a contemporary parallel in the increase in large ensembles and an accompanying elaboration on and emulation of a broader range of compositional influences (classical as well as jazz). By large ensemble I don’t mean simply big bands, with their established sectional formation, but a flexibly constituted chamber group — a mixture of individual horns and reeds, a rhythm section that may not necessarily function in the conventional fashion, with the important inclusion of several string players and, crucially, an electronic component. “Orchestra” is the word most often used to describe them, regardless of size, but I propose the term “broken consort,” borrowed from the Elizabethan name for an ensemble mixing instruments from different families. (Realistically, I don’t expect it to catch on, but what the hey.)

…the large ensemble music of guitarist/composer Scott Fields on Moersbow/OZZO (Clean Feed) expresses a more traditional, not to say conservative, contemporary classical demeanor, which may in part be attributed to Fields’ past collaborations with composer Stephen Dembski, who himself studied at one time with Milton Babbitt. This twenty-four-piece broken consort, an outgrowth of the James Choice Orchestra that performed works by Matthias Schubert, Frank Gratkowski, Norbert Stein, and Carl Ludwig Hübsch on a 2008 Leo release, includes familiar names like reedman Gratkowski, tubaist Hübsch, saxophonist Schubert, synthesist Thomas Lehn, plus additional horns, string players, computer programmers, and a prominent accordion (Florian Standler). It should be noted that there is no James Choice, the name stems from a mispronunciation of James Joyce, which is why Fields’ calls his the Multiple Joyce Orchestra. But the music, like the band name, is a product of open-ended interpretations, multiple layers of meaning, and playful responses (it could have been the Multiple Choice Orchestra). In “Moersbow,’” a tribute to the Japanese noise band Merzbow ironically intended to be “as quiet as the musicians can manage,” the sotto voce drones, glimmering and hovering pitched and unpitched tones dissolve into serpentine lines only to end without resolution, a possible metaphor for the now destroyed Kurt Schwitters architecture (Merzbau) that provided the band’s name. Throughout the four-part ”OZZO,” perhaps due to Fields’ modular formats or the nature of the material presented to the players, the effect is of sound masses in motion, congealed from isolated lines. Flux is the order of the day; the harmonic fabric is ambiguously chromatic, different tempi are layered together, passages linger, rotate, stop, and reappear, instruments merge together in common themes and disrupt into broad polyphony or pile up vertically, often colored by jazzy brass growls and saxophone wails. The degree of composed to improvised music is uncertain, but the effect is of a process discovering its own form and concluding as a durable entity. —   Point of Departure

Tom Laskin     The Madison-based Scott Fields Ensemble doesn’t waste a moment on its sinewy debut for Berkeley’s Music & Arts. Picking up where the late Sonny Sharrock left off, Fields threatens to wear out his plectrum five minutes into “Sputter,” the furiously free second movement of “Disaster at Sea,” an intricately developed long-form work that evokes the tensions of its aqueous theme with unexpected irony. From then on, the guitarist/composer alternates between aggression and reflection, building a tonal architecture that’s consistently interesting and often quite stunning. —   Isthmus

Kevin Lian-Anderson     Song Songs Song finds Fields and Parker claiming quite a bit of common ground with Parker’s trademark fluidity blending nicely with Fields’ clean abstraction. Parker’s “LK 92,” the album’s opener, exhibits the only real groove on the record with an ominous chord progression from Fields providing a fertile landscape through which Parker negotiates his limber strolls. When Fields joins the jaunty ramble, the guitarists’ interplay tantalizes with gorgeous, interwoven lines and hurried passages that are more Jim Hall than Derek Bailey. They leave this relatively accessible real estate behind with the four Fields-conceived “Untitled” pieces (the composition listings actually read as medium descriptions for visual works of art as in “Untitled, 2004, Dried Blood On Gauze, Elastic Strip With Adhesive Backing”). These selections are markedly unstable objects with extended periods of reflective calm interrupted by agitated, tussling chatter from the six-stringed interlocutors; volume knobs are played with, pedals are engaged, and a bit of dirt is thrown on the canvas at times. Despite all the labor involved and some inspired moments, the tracks tend to meander aimlessly, never really marshalling a truly compelling reason to stick with the hike for its duration.

“The Fields of Cologne,” another Parker composition, finishes the record, thus fulfilling the simple logic of the album’s title. Much freer than “LK 92,” the introspective piece practically begs for the sinewy cornet of Rob Mazurek (Parker’s colleague from the Chicago Underground assemblies) to slip into the conversation. It is evident after listening to these two very different recordings [Song Songs Song and christangelfox] that Fields succeeds most profoundly when he casts his conceptual net far and wide. —   One Final Note

    Scott Fields has toiled in relative obscurity since the late 60s—languishing, like the Freakwater song goes, in the Midwest like some old romantic fool—but his burgeoning body of work (he didn’t start actively recording and releasing his own material until the early 1990s) has collected a significant coterie of critical admirers. The guitarist is noted for the craft and care he demonstrates when choosing his collaborators, and I don’t think one can quarrel with the conscripts he dragooned for the two efforts in question here. Song Songs Song is a duo session with fellow fretman Jeff Parker, while christangelfox is a trio date with reedist Guillermo Gregorio and cellist Matt Turner.

By my lights, christangelfox’s minimalist excursion constitutes the stronger work; its measured approach and subtle instrumentation—each player textures the unfolding drama with startlingly effective percussive accents coaxed from pieces of wood, metal, and stone, “all floating freely on open-cell foam slabs” according to Fields’ own liner notes—evokes a mystical space that is unsettling one moment and curiously uplifting the next. Never one to be boxed in conceptually, Fields has referenced the deep musical history of myriad Asian cultures (particularly in his use of the unorthodox percussion arrangement) to construct an hour-long solemn meditation grounded in a single scale. Together, the musicians spin a paradoxical fabric that is intensely ascetic even while it unspools its complex narrative thread. One particularly arresting passage occurs at the midway point when Fields introduces a delicate ostinato guitar figure that heightens the tension while Turner and Gregorio awaken to the call and respond with searching expressions. It is a testament to Fields’ remarkable facility for blending composition with free improvisation in a seamless fashion. —    One Final Note

Kevin Lynch     “96 Gestures” is based on a huge score of 96 motifs or “gestures” that musicians play and improvise on, as per a conductor’s cues. By controlling the durations of the phrase length, the conductor could “create contrasts of cohesiveness of pulsation in the tradition of Steve Reich,” writes annotator Stephen Dembski, a professor of music at UW-Madison, who conducted the work. But the effect is far more unfettered and unpredictable than Reich’s chattering, modular-sounding music.

“96 Gestures” grows, from oddly shifting and beguiling rhythmic interactions, into some fairly woolly collective improvs, but it never sounds chaotic. That’s due to the score’s undergridding, Dembski’s guidance and to the extraordinary skill and invention of these fine musicians. Besides guitarist Fields, the ensemble includes saxophonist-flutist Joseph Jarman, pianist Myra Melford, clarinetist François Houle, cornetist Rob Mazurek, oboist-English hornist Robbie Lynn Hunsinger, cellist Matt Turner, bassists Hans Sturm and Jason Roebke, and percussionists Damon Short and Dylan Van Der Schyff.

The result, even through three 60-minute-plus takes, is eminently listenable new music. Charming, quirky dance-like duets and trios mushroom into larger collectives. You won’t forget a plaintive passage of long tones for trumpet, saxophone, bowed basses and drums, about 19 minutes into the opening performance. Each take is quite different, like a landscape constantly mutating into new forms and colors. —   The Capital Times


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