scott fields

Scott Fields, musician


Listen, Madison! In composer-guitarist Scott Fields you have an accomplished, creative jazz artist — an innovator. That’ll come as a surprise to you. He’s not that well known in town, let alone nationally. 

Currently there isn’t a lot of respect for innovation in jazz. The most popular performers aren’t even mainstream artists; they're reactionaries. But it’s people like Fields who keep art alive, fresh and growing. He’s facing today's musical challenges, not ignoring them. 

What are these challenges? Many stem from the free-jazz style of the 1960s reaching a dead end. Free jazz then sometimes became unrestrained and self-indulgent. The musicians played as fast and as loud as they could, screaming and rasping, without giving any thought to pace. The fact that they eschewed chord changes did not aid many in playing inventively. 

By the mid-1970s there was a crying need for more structured jazz performances. In response to this, many young musicians became traditionalists. Others, such as Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and Roy Nathanson, moved ahead in a variety of ways. Fields can be included in their camp. Fields himself has picked up ideas from the AACM jazzmen in his native Chicago, as well as Cecil Taylor. 

You’ve got to concentrate on this CD closely to get the maximum from it. These guys are subtle; they don’t hit you over the head. But they’re doing groundbreaking work and deserve a hearing. — Isthmus

Running with Scissors

Guitarist, composer, and long-Time Madison resident Scott Fields has recorded an ambitious jazz CD. His compositions vary from diatonic to whole-tone to variations of 12-tone systems, including one developed by University of Wisconsin's Stephen Dembski. There is a rhythmic and metric chance-taking going on here as well. Much of "1/3 Dutch" is played out of tempo, "An Ounce of Sense" employs four against three meters, and "Is That Oshawa?" is in 5/4 time.

Despite all of the experimentation going on, traditional elements remain. "Hurricane Sponge Bath" is a blues, and "Roses at the Great Dismal Swamp" is very similar to Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Much of the music here is lyrical and sensitively played. Fields is a thoughtful, original stylist who plays two varieties of acoustic guitar. Vibist Robert Stright improvises with lucidity and a whole lot of chops and imagination. Trombonist Derek James, employing an aggressive attack, takes a lot of chances, making a fresh choice of notes, using frequent register changes and breaking up his lines unpredictably.

One of the CD's hight points is the ensemble playing: bassist John Padden and drummer Geoff Brady deserve considerable praise for their part in it. Both are comfortable in non-timekeeping roles, constantly keeping things moving. Brady is a fine, subtle colorist.

Running with Scissors is an important, substantive CD, and I hope Madison supports this quintet to the extent that their music will have an opportunity to be appreciated round the country. — Isthmus

From the Diary of Dog Drexel

Over the years, Fields has been a kind of one-man avant-garde, doing a variety of original work in Madison, Wisconsin, and this album continues his mission with the usual humane understatement. A goal of the first four movements of this five-movement piece is to blur the distinction between written and improvised music. During those movements, at least one written part and one improvised part is steadily played by two of the album’s five musicians — Fields on guitar, Carrie Biolo on vibes, marimba and unpitched percussion, Guillermo Gregorio on alto sax and clarinet, and Greg Kelley on trumpet — while the remaining three either improvise or play written music, constantly shifting the balance between the two. The fifth movement, composed by Gregory Taylor, uses Cycling 74’s Max/MSP software to blend and processes the solo work of each ensemble member. 

Overall, the results are pleasingly low-keyed, with all sorts of unusual colors and textures being produced. There’s a lot of contrapuntal work here, but the musicians stay out of each other’s way, making their work easy to follow. But that doesn’t make it shallow. B PLUS — Urban Dialect

Five Frozen Eggs

Fields wrote all of the compositions on this stimulating CD and plays them on guitar with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Hans Sturm, and percussionist Hamid Drake. Despite often performing quietly, they take plenty of risks. Fields employs harmonic and rhythmic/metric concepts derived from composer Stephen Dembski, which he’s modified for use in an improvising context. Often his group’s playing, though not conventionally melodic, is lyrical. Much of the disc features thoughtful, pointillistic collective improvisation. Crispell’s the most aggressive player here and performs impressively. Her work ranges from pensive to jarringly percussive, but is always well thought out, inventive, and clearly articulated. Fields plays economically, concentrating on adding color to the ensemble. Sturm and Drake make valuable contributions, listening closely to what’s going on and responding with intelligence and creativity. — Jazziz

December 1998 interview for Jazziz magazine

When did you start playing? 

When I was a teenager, in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, on the south side. I played in blues bands and rock bands and when I graduated from high school I moved in with a rock band on the north side. That lasted about a year, then I moved back to Hyde Park. 

Hyde Park and other parts of the south side was also where the whole AACM scene was going on, and I heard a lot of those guys even when I was 15 or 16 years old and I started to try to imitate their style. Around this time I also had a chance to hang around Joseph Jarman, who was friends with the mother of the drummer I was playing with. Joseph and I didn’t ever play together, and I didn’t take lessons from him or anything, but I did get to hear him a lot, since he played every chance he got. I think that year he played with both the MC5 proto-punk group out of Detroit and John Cage. I remember him throwing the I Ching to make compositions. He also was very encouraging to me, and probably everyone else he talked to. 

After the rock band fell apart, I pretty much stopped playing rock or blues and I formed a free-jazz power trio with an organist named Stan White and a percussionist named Richard Vertel. This group was very influenced by the AACM players, especially the art ensemble, but also by the trio that Tony Williams, Larry Young and John McLaughlin had, Lifetime I think. The whole AACM multi-instrumentalist approach also affected me and in addition to guitar, I started to play tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet, various other stringed instruments, and percussion instruments. At one point Richard and I found a pair of beat up Ludwig timpani. I bought the 23-inch and he bought the 25-inch one. So I was hauling this pawn-shop full of instruments to all of our gigs. 

This trio played completely free. We didn’t use charts or any type of composition. We didn’t talk about what we were going to play or what we had played, other than to say it was a good or bad night. We were playing at jazz and rock rooms. We opened for Doug Ewert’s band one week and a couple of weeks later played at a rock festival that included groups like REO Speedwagon. We were also incredibly loud. In fact, when we opened for Doug, he insisted that we play second because he wanted his audience to retain their hearing for his set. 

When I started with this trio, I really didn’t have any fundamental reading or notation skills. As a naïve teenager I had thought that the AACM people were just blowing, but I found out that most of those guys were very polished. Most of them — like Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell — had come out of the hard-bop scene and had been in various military bands. They were also producing pretty elaborate compositions. So I realized that I had to develop some basis for what I wanted to do that extended past playing by ear. I started to work through Paul Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians with a vibes player named Dave Kelly and I also started to study classical guitar with a woman named Sherry Conway. 

Around this time the trio — it was called Life Rhythms — decided that just playing free was turning into a dead end for us. Some nights we just weren’t into it or couldn’t get started, and without compositions to work from, we would sometimes not play anything we liked. So we decided to start composing our ideas. But when we did that, we found that we were going in opposite directions. The organist wanted to play “space rock,” like groups like Pink Floyd at the time and The Soft Machine. I was more interested in the AACM sort of thing. So Stan found a different guitarist, a real rock guy, and they took made up space names, like Karellen Zor and Jacxillion. A year or so later, Stan died in his sleep at the age of 26 and the vibes player Dave Kelly formed a sort of fusion group with Vertel, a bass player, and a pianist. I played a couple of gigs with them and they asked me to join them, but I wasn’t much interested in that style and didn’t think I was very good at it anyway, so I declined. 

For the next couple of years I continued to study and play freelance gigs some. I also attended tons of AACM performances. The Art Ensemble was back from Paris by then, and Henry Threadgil had just formed his trio with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. That was before it was called Air, it was still the Henry Threadgil Trio. I also saw a performance of the AACM big band (I don’t remember what it was called exactly). The final piece knocked me out. Jarman and Mitchell were playing bass saxophone, Threadgil (I think) was playing bass clarinet. Doug Ewart was playing bass clarinet. George Lewis was on trombone. I think Don Moye and Steve McCall were in the group, as well as Fred Hopkins and others. It was a long bass line that grew and grew. I also would see various AACM ensembles in very intimate settings, like University of Chicago classrooms and small coffeehouses. Obviously, those performances influenced the way I think musically more than anything else.

I got burned out on Chicago, however. I was a frequent crime victim and my health was bad and I was performing less and less. Then I got married and moved to a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin.

When was that?

I was 23, so it was 1975 or 76. I tried to form a group there, but I couldn’t find musicians who had any idea what I was talking about and I don’t know if there was anyplace to play anyway. I did continue to study classical guitar, this time with George Lindquist, who is a music professor at the Milwaukee Conservatory and the University of Wisconsin at Parkside. I also enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a music major, where I studied theory and composition. Unfortunately, the UW didn’t have a guitar department yet, so I wasn’t allowed to take many music courses; I graduated with degrees in journalism and economics. But for the next 15 years or so, I really didn’t perform. I played a wedding service now and then, and for a year had a rock parody band, which I really didn’t feel good about, but I really wasn’t doing much musically.

When did you start performing again?

In 1990. My father had died the year before, and for some reason that shook me up to start performing. I formed a quintet called the Silt Loam Ensemble with another guitarist, Carl Michel, who I’d been studying with. We played around Wisconsin for a year, Then he left town, and we changed drummers, and I substituted a trombonist for Carl, then a vibes player for the saxophonist, until I was the only original member left. So I changed the name to the Scott Fields Ensemble, which is composed of myself and various combinations of the people I play with on a regular basis.

When did you start on this Dembski stuff?

About four years ago. I was working for the University of Wisconsin part-time as a writer — I was writing mostly about science, but they also gave me most of the arts and music stuff — and I was assigned to write and article about Stephen Dembski, the graduate composition professor. When I interviewed him, he explained how he had developed a post-serial, pseudo-tonal pitch-organization system. He went through the progression of tonal systems that have been used in Western classical music, ending up with 12-tone stuff, serialism. He studied with Milton Babbitt, who sort of took serialism as far as it could go, so Dembski was looking for something else. 

It occurred to me that the progression of tonal organization in classical music also happened in jazz on a much more compressed scale. So if melody and mode were the main thing in Renaissance music, modulation was a Baroque thing, extending chords was a classical and Romantic thing, altered modes was a post-Romantic trend, 12-tone was at the beginning of the twentieth-century and pure sound maybe came after that, the same evolution can be seen in jazz. So Dixieland is melody based, then jazz becomes more chord based with the Swing era, very change-, and altered-and-extended-change based with bop. Some of the post-boppers, like Lenny Tristano, were doing 12-tone stuff (for that matter, Freedom Jazz Dance is based on a 12-pitch tone row). And the free jazzers were certainly influenced by post-tonal stuff and pure sound. So I thought maybe the Dembski system would work for improvisation, maybe that was a good next step for me.

Why did you want another system at all?

Although my groups haven’t been playing absolutely free — I’m pretty much obsessed with composition and structure — a lot of the improvised sections were free tonally. Sometimes that is the best way to go, but sometimes I was looking for more tonal coherence, something to tie the improvisations together in terms of pitch, rather than just structure or orchestration or playing techniques. I had used all of the stock tonal systems, modal stuff and altered scales, and stock tonality, and 12-tone systems, but sometimes using those various systems in one set felt too cobbled together, really post-modern. I wanted some other pitch organization system that didn’t refer back to earlier music.

How does the Dembski system work?

It uses the interaction of two irregular 12-tone pitch sets to create scales. Normal tonal scales are built off of the only two regularly spaced 12-tone rows you can make from 12 pitches, the cycle of fifths and the chromatic circle. If you take any 7 consecutive notes from the cycle of fifths and put them in the order of the chromatic circle—in other words, arrange them chromatically—they will form either a major scale or a mode of a major scale. And of course, chords are built from these scales. 

What Dembski does is make two non-regular tone rows, then treat one like the cycle of fifths and the other like the chromatic circle to make scales, and from those chords. That way the scales and chords aren’t tonal, but they do form a closely related set of scales and chords that work together like tonal scales and chords do.

So you use the system the way Dembski does?

In some ways but not others. I simplify it greatly and added aids for improvisation. In Steve’s system, each pair of 12-pitch tone rows creates more than 1,000 scales. That works for his classical stuff, but is too much for improvisation. For each pair, I make just 12 scales. It took me a while to figure out how to get people to improvise within this system. Originally, I provided the scales and for the chords I provided traditional chord symbols, like seven, flat five, flat nine and so on. But I found that the improvisers would see those symbols and immediately use the major scales and modes associated with them. So instead I started providing between one and three extra staves for each improvised section. One staff is always there, that provides the scale for that moment. If there are chord changes (based on Dembski chords), I provide a second staff that shows the first four notes (like a seventh chord) of the chord for that moment. And if I want a particular rhythmic feel — a kick — I put that on the third staff. 

The heads, of course, always have Dembski scales, chords, and a feel, but since they’re not improvised, I show just the written part.

Do all of your recordings use this system?

All of the CDs do. The first CD, Running with Scissors, is transitional. The compositions represent a progression from tonal music to Steve’s system. The first two pieces — Exogamy and 1/3 Dutch — are tonal. An Ounce of Sense is based on whole-tone scales. I Want to be a Millionaire but I Don’t have a Tuxedo is serial (sometimes called 12-tone or atonal). The next two pieces — Pieces of Piggy and Mulch — are based on “limited sets,” a form of 12-tone music that uses tone rows a chunk at a time. The last six tunes on the album are based on Steve’s system. For these compositions, I used traditional jazz forms — such as rhythm changes, the blues, modal jazz, and the Wayne Shorter piece Footprints — as a basis for those. 

The next CD, Fugu, is all Dembski stuff, and it doesn’t use traditional forms at all, although it is quite structured. The one after that, 48 Motives, is an extended conducted improvisation. It consists of 48 melodic themes with accompanying parts for bass and kit drums. Each of the four melody instruments has 24 themes, 12 written for the instrument and four from each of the other three. That means any part can be doubled, as the conductor chooses. Because the conductor selects themes, their order, combinations, instrumentation, layers, dynamics, and tempi, the performances of the piece are really different from one another. Each theme also includes a related pitch set upon which the musicians base their improvisations. That means the conductor also influences the performance by selecting the tonal material available to the improvisers. 

For the recorded version of 48 Motives, Steve Dembski was the conductor. We did three takes, which are really different from each other. We released the second take and might release the third as well, since I have had some interest from labels for it and I think it’s good. 

The CD after that, Disaster at Sea, is also based on Dembski’s system, which I’m using it for everything right now, but the tonal coherence is a little harder to hear. It’s a trio of myself, Matt Turner on cello and Vincent Davis on drums. I wanted to exploit the similarities of the sounds between cello and overdriven guitar. So it’s pretty thrashy and since I play hardly any chords, the tonal organization is difficult to detect, especially on the first piece, in which the tonal structure just sort of peeks out from a wall off noise. We also play a Joseph Jarman composition, Old Time South Street Dance.

Joseph Jarman is on 48 Motives. How did you link up with him? What’s the connection?

He was the one individual I remembered best from the AACM scene, and the one I was most influenced by. In fact, the reason my groups are all called the Scott Fields Ensemble is an homage to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So once I felt as though I were ready to play some again, I wanted to reconnect with him. Roscoe Mitchell lives here in Madison, so I got Joseph’s number in Brooklyn from Roscoe and I called Joseph and asked him to come to Madison to perform with me and three other players here. He had only the vaguest idea of who I was, but enough so that he agreed. The performance was OK — he was great, but I was nervous and have played better. Later that year, I asked if he would record a large-ensemble piece I was writing. That’s 48 Motives, which was released on Cadence Jazz Records in July 1996. While he was here for that, he and Marilyn Crispell, who’s also on 48 Motives, performed a duo concert (my trio with Matt and Vincent opened), which I had recorded and produced as a Music and Arts CD, which just came out.

Do you have anything else new?

Yes. I recorded two other projects in October. One is a quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Hamid Drake on drums, and Hans Sturm on bass. It’s called Five Frozen Eggs and comes out on Music and Arts in April. That’s all my compositions using the Dembski system. The other project is actual Dembski stuff. He wrote an extended composition called Sonotropism that Marilyn, Larry Ochs, and Matt Turner, and I recorded in the studio and in performance. I haven’t mixed that yet. I’m also planning a couple more recordings for late spring, one for classical guitar, hand drums and bass and the other for quintet. I’m also working on a 48-Motives-like piece called 48 Cycles. It’s intended for 10 or more players, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to record that many people.

Are you playing out much?

Matt and I and Donald Robinson are touring the West Coast in March and Matt and I should be in Europe later in spring. Other than that, I’m playing primarily in the mid-West.