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Composer-guitarist Scott Fields forgoes his   usual small group work for a triumph of scale. On 96 Gestures, conductor Stephen Dembski and a dozen A-list free-jazz musicians — including Joseph Jarman (alto sax), Myra Melford (piano), François Houle (clarinet), and Rob Mazurek (cornet) — work from and elaborate upon Fields’ modular compositions. Three radically different performances pirouette as effortlessly as a Calder mobile in a gentle breeze. —Gregory Taylor,   Wired



“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. — Kevin Lynch,   The Capital Times



Fields has said that his   use of the word ‘Ensemble’ pays homage to The Art Ensemble of his native Chicago, rather than being a means to identify a particular group of musicians. The personnel lined up behind the name has varied wildly. Van der Schyff recurs on 96 Gestures but as part of a 12-piece group steered by conductor Stephen Dembski. Among the other members are alto saxophonist Joseph Jarman, pianist Myra Melford, clarinetist François Houle and Rob Mazurek on cornet. The composition is a structure of cued modules giving leads that encourage improvisation. Outcome can vary considerably as these three realizations, each more than an hour long, demonstrate well. Common to all three is a sense of fluency, lightness and mobility, multiple events and constant activity without unwanted snarls or messy collisions. Ostensibly very different to This That, and on a label subsidiary to CRI, which has for many years championed contemporary compositions, 96 Gestures nonetheless shares points of contact in its questioning repetitions and variations, its (more formal) permutatory maneuvers and the sense that no concluding gesture can ever be more than provisional. Fields’s choice of collaborators has been one of his strengths. Here it ensures sensitive playing and accurate reading that align the piece with substantial work by the likes of Butch Morris, Anthony Braxton, and John Zorn seeking ways to sustain and extend creative relationships between composed forms and alert improvising. — Julian Cowley,   The Wire



On 96 Gestures West-coast composer   and guitarist Scott Fields resurfaces with another of his much ballyhooed “modular compositions” for improvising chamber ensemble. This one meanders over an eyelid-drooping three hours and eighteen minutes. A test of endurance for even the most seasoned critic, I must admit that mid-way through the third disc I started to doze off and at one point actually drove off the road.

Fields—or his gullible label CRI—attempts to justify this dangerous length through the suspicion-raising claim that each of the three discs represents a complete, unique performance of this so-called “composition.” Common sense, or simple human decency, dictates that the composer, or conductor, or label A-and-R man, make some attempt to condense this test of one reviewer’s patience.

The best parts of each of the three discs should have been combined into a single roof-raising jam session. The best way would have been to take each of the 12 musicians’ solos and arrange them back-to-back. Myra Melford, for example, has several stirring solos, but they’re too short and too far apart. They should have been melded into one long ivory tickling so we could really check out this chick’s chops. Likewise, François Houle’s licorice stick licking should be sliced into one long, black blow, even though that would expose the Frenchman’s c’est la vie intonation. And Chi-Town Undergrounder Rob Mazurek’s gen-X excursions on Harmon-muted trumpet could have been a bitchin’ brew over the goosestepping ostinados of “Herr Contrabassman” Hans Sturm. Of course, running all of these solos together would have left scant room for any of the leader’s own fret work, but really that is just as well. — Hugh Jarrid,   Swingin’ Thing Magazine