Having upped the number of musicians involved as well as the scope of his creative strategies, the newest orchestral work by American guitarist Scott Fields involves 23 players — plus him conducting — interpreting one, nearly-14-minute, and another four-part, hour-long composition. The result, recorded live in the guitarist’s adopted hometown of Köln, is satisfyingly striking, with the proviso that subsequent performances likely sounded different, considering that that the unique physical gestures used by Fields and the musicians to communicate are drawn from the American Manual Alphabet.
Chicago-born Fields, who has recorded extensively over the past three decades in configurations ranging from duets with fellow guitarists Elliott Sharp and Jeff Parker to any number of combos, has gathered some of Köln’s most-accomplished players here, many as whom are as experienced in contemporary notated music as Jazz. Among the best-known improv-wise are saxophonists Frank Gratkowski and Matthias Schubert, tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch, pianist Philip Zoubek and Thomas Lehn who manipulates electronics. At the same time, players from the word of composition interpretation such as flautist Angelica Sheridan bring their unique talents to the interface.
Lehn’s clicking and clanking oscillations, amplified by the computer work of Marion Wörle and Eva Pöpplein create the wavering cross tones which combine with acoustic instruments’ legato tones on “Moersbow”. Played as quietly as possible, in sharp contrast to the excessive fortissimo crunches produced by Merzbow, the Japanese noise musician after whom the piece is named, widened flute obbligatos, muted and discursive trumpet solos from Udo Moll or Matthias Mainz plus high-frequency chording from the pianist keep the salute bubbling at the mid-point between inchoate and invention.
“OZZO 1-4” is even more polyphonic and multi-tonal, with the variations encompassing every manner of pastoral and abrasive leitmotif, especially in the over-30 minute first section. With processed squeaks and voltage pops from the electronics frequently underscoring the narrative, the contrapuntal evolution includes exchanges among sul ponticello strings, a brassy lead trumpet, split tones and irregular vibrations from the reeds, and stop-time yet stentorian thumps from percussionist Christian Thomés. Meanwhile Florian Standler’s accordion flutters flit among the solid textures. Twittering and stuttering alto saxophone squeaks are framed by chromatic brass harmonies, while the flute work of Sheridan and Michael Heupel ranges from gentle to staccato. More than pedal-point time-markers, the tubas of Hübsch and Melvyn Poore are put to more extensive use with contrapuntal displays of brass beats as well as elaborating sequences divided among the two, the accordion and Tang’s walking bass. Before the first section’s climax is defined by embellished linear string motion, vibist Tom Lorenz and tenor saxophonist Matthias Schubert duet on one theme variant which oozes “OZZO” closest to the standard Jazz form.
Alternating tutti and individual theme elaborations, the last section weaves strings, brass, saxophone splutters, pitch-sliding flute lines, clip-clop drumming and some computer pulsations to reach an almost tonic finale. With multiphonic contributions from a nearly all the players appear sequentially, the finale is almost pseudo-romantic.
While the particular circumstances under which the Multiple Joyce Orchestra interpreted Fields’ compositions may alter next time around, this CD is proof that the American’s skills as a composer as well as a guitarist continue to mature imaginatively. — Jazzword
Music for the Radio Program "This American Life"
Complete with the requisite word “American” in its title, Chicago-born Köln-based guitarist Scott Fields offers his vision of Americana on this CD, with themes ostensibly composed to be used by This American Life, a long-running radio program on Chicago’s WBEZ.
Before fearing that Fields has become a Bill Frisell doppelganger, wedded to country and folk-flavored tropes, his sardonic track explanations suggest otherwise. His comments about the show’s “carpetbagger” host scavenging music to be “sliced, diced, mixed, and fried” may prevent these themes from reaching their intended market. More to the point, each of the five tracks operates on multiple levels, with atonal and contrapuntal asides and extensions sneaking out from within the rolling, lyrical narratives.
Additionally, this American Life is played by two expatriate Yanks, one German and one Portuguese. In different combinations the other players have worked with Fields on earlier CDs. Texas-born cellist Scott Roller, who moved to Germany in 1984, usually works with New Music ensembles such as Musikfabrik NRW, the Helios String Quartet and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern. German bassist Sebastian Gramss plays with saxophonist Frank Gratkowski and in the large James Choice Orchestra, while João Lobo, who is himself expatriated in Belgium, skillfully moves between playing jazz and Portuguese popular music.
Intricately connected throughout, most of the pieces evolve from Gramss’ brisk walking slaps and Lobo’s rhythmic rebounds, rolls and energetic drum head popping. Roller’s split tone excursions are so staccato and high-pitched that the resulting sounds often resemble those of a soprano saxophone as much as a string set. Meanwhile Fields plucks, twangs and pulses rarely push the tempo quicker than moderato.
Two instances of where this cohesion works are “Can He Make a W?” and “That and a Dime…” Taken languidly, the former depends on thick bass thumps and unforced drum drags as spidery guitar runs and cello portamento lead to cohesive trade-offs between the two string players. As the cellist’s tone becomes lighter, the piece climaxes with darker story-telling vamps from Fields.
In contrast “That and a Dime…” is heartier and heavier with stress provided by string drones. Then as Gramss gently and gradually modulates the underlying pulses, both the guitarist and cellist scrub and slap their strings to produce sharp, sweeping sul ponticello concordance. Later they divide, with Fields’ output feathery and delicate outlined against Roller’s glissandi. As these two unroll rubato pulses, the textures are complemented with walking connection from Gramss and Lobo’s clip-clopping shuffles. A final, speedier variation knits together Lobo’s pops, ruffs and drags, Fields’ buzzing runs and staccato pumps from the arco players.
Droll or not, snatches of these compositions may be unrecognizable if played between stories on This American Life — if that situation is actually possible. More fruitful for those who appreciate improvised music, would be to listen to this CD and the pieces in complete form. — Jazzword
Bitter Love Songs
Another improviser who tours as frequently as [Evan] Parker is guitarist Scott Fields. Chicago-born, Fields moved to Köln, Germany a few years back. On the witty Bitter Love Songs (Clean Feed CF102CD), he leads a trio completed by a Portuguese rhythm section: bassist Sebastian Gramss and drummer João Lobo. Fields’ compositions, which match liquid guitar runs, slinky bass lines and on-the-beat drumming, are still at variance with their sardonic titles.
For instance “My Love is Love, Your Love is Hate,” features a spinning staccato theme from Fields that is stretched with slurred fingering until it seems that it will rupture, but doesn’t. Working in double counterpoint, the massed strings join to produce a barrage of notes, with Fields sounding as if he’s playing microtonally and Gramss slapping a backbeat. Meanwhile Lobo’s flams precede an intermezzo for ringing guitar licks. Note clusters are lobbed between the players on “You Used to Say I Love You but So What Now.” But the strategy is different. Fields’ contrapuntal chording skirts C&W picking, while Gramss resonates handfuls of low-pitched timbres. Eventually as the bassist settles on legato pacing, Fields wraps up with echoing, blues-based licks.
Gramss’ bass work owes its suppleness to sonic extensions from older bass specialists such as New York’s Mark Helias, who has recorded in Toronto. His Open Loose band includes drummer Tom Rainey and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. — Jazzword
Song Songs Song
Cologne-based expatriate American guitarist Scott Fields frames this memorable quartet session as a tribute to existential Irish writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Unlike Beckett’s almost static works featuring lonely humans trying to articulate the unexpressive however, Fields’ compositions manage to be both stirring and affecting.
Although the longer tracks incorporate Beckett-like extended pauses, elsewhere all-encompassing, multi-voiced counterpoint recalls not the Irish dramatist’s bare-bones style, but the overlapping dialogue of film makers such as Robert Altman. American playwright David Mamet received a similar homage from Fields in 2000 and the subsequent years have fortified the guitarist’s playing and writing…or is it acting and directing?
Dramatis personae in this work include a cast of experienced actors…er, players. German tenor saxophonist Matthias Schubert exposes timbres ranging from pumping atonal slurs to echoing, chesty vibrations; versatile American percussionist John Hollenbeck busily propels the splintered beat with his regular kit, while using water-glass-like pings, pealing chimes, and what sounds like rubber-balls bouncing on snare tops for added scene-setting. Yank expat cellist Scott Roller, of the legit Helios String Quartet, adds cross-swiped col legno jabs as effortlessly as vamping walking bass lines.
While the staccato “Play” projects quadruple counterpoint from all concerned — demonstrating call-and-call rather than call-and-response — the nearly 30-minute agitato “What Where” is Fields’ chef d’oeuvre. With his knob-twisting distortion and slurred fingering on show, the guitarist elaborates the accelerating explosive theme on top of solid rhythms propelled both by Hollenbeck’s unaffected smacks, slaps and pops and near-identical stop-and-start voicing of scrapes, whistles, stops and vibrations from cello and saxophone.
Thematically conclusive throughout, Beckett transcends its derivation to become CD that is certainly more polyphonic — and often more theatrical — than Beckett’s writing. — Coda Magazine
We Were the Phliks
Utilizing the textures available from one instrument which assumed its modern form sometime between the 10th and the 15th century and another 20th century invention considered antique because it’s merely analogue, guitarist Scott Fields has created an almost 70½-minute CD that’s as audacious as it is rewarding.
Naturally being improvised music, We Were The Phliks also depends on the interpretive skills of the four players as much as the graphical or conventional notation Fields uses for these four long pieces. A mixture of experiences and cultures, the players are Fields, the Chicago-born guitarist who has lived in Köln, Germany for the past few years; two German-born Köln residents: tenor saxophonist Matthias Schubert and analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn; plus Xu Fengxia, a native of Shanghai, who now lives in Hövelhof and plays the guzheng, a large Chinese zither whose most familiar shape was established by the 15th century.
All the players are open to new experiences however. Fields, whose collaborators have ranged from fellow guitarist Jeff Parker to oboist Kyle Bruckmann, and Schubert, who is part of a co-op trio with tubaist Carl-Ludwig Hübsch and trombonist Wolter Wierbos, manipulate traditional jazz instruments to this end. Lehn, whose extended wires and in-put plugs characterize his axe of choice as a pre-1980s model, often plays with fellow sound explorers like saxophonist John Butcher. As well, despite her instrument’s antiquity, Xu has recorded with Free players such as percussionist Roger Turner.
Operating in non-traditional territory, the sounds created here don’t replicate expected timbres anyhow. Xu’s guzheng vibrations sometimes resemble those of a double bass or a banjo; Schubert is as likely to output wispy flutters and tongue slaps as honks and legato runs; and Lehn’s synthesizer does double duty as an electronic keyboard and to trigger otherworldly oscillations and drones. While Fields does comp, his licks would never be confused with those of Barney Kessel.
At points in fact, settling on a fashion in which to simultaneously interact with Schubert’s altissimo squeaks, Xu’s triple-stopping banjo-like peals and Lehn’s disconnected electronic pulses, the guitarist tries out crunchy, downward string trebles that balance between Bluegrass runs and Hawaiian echoes.
When the sonic diffusion among the four doesn’t evolve in rondo-like fashion, it does so in dual counterpoint. For instance the pleasantness of Xu’s chromatic plinks and plunks is contrasted with Fields’ staccato reverb; or Lehn’s vibrating electronic drones are texturally contrasted with Schubert’s trilling smears. Elsewhere, distortions from the two electrified instruments create cumulative, polyphonic crackles and sputters. In still other spots, the saxophone’s twittering phrasing turns tenderly legato, while the guzheng’s zither-like qualities disappear into lute-like glissandi.
Each player’s techniques and ruses protrude with structured logic during the more than 24½ minutes of “Assi Glöde.” Stuttering barks triggered from the synthesizer, plus distorted chording and stop-time rasgueado from the guitar escalate to contrapuntally contrast with Schubert’s irregularly paced growls and Xu’s chromatic plectrum plucks.
Midway through, while the guzheng player’s abrasively flat picks, the reedist’s fluttering vibrations and split tones are shadowed by overlaid, distorted guitar runs. Soon with the combined pulsations making up a continuous electro-acoustic background, single reed puffs move to the foreground. Eventually, a new passage of motor-driven oscillations from Lehn encourages Fields to abandon single-stroke licks to create a throbbing crescendo of sprawling multiphonics. That is quickly amplified by Schubert’s reed snorts and spetrofluctuation. With the climax attained, a few final saxophone breaths and echoing guitar fills confirm the piece’s conclusion.
On earlier CDs, Fields has celebrated such accomplished literary figures as American playwright David Mamet and Irish dramatist Samuel Becket. Featuring this unique mixture of almost ancient, near-modern and contemporary textures, the oddly titled CD’s literary precedent could be a time-shifting science fiction novel that intersects concepts of past, present and future. Overall, We Were The Phliks is definitely a good read…that is listen. — Jazzword
From the Diary of Dog Drexel
Scott Fields is yet another musician interested in melting the boundaries between so-called jazz and so-called classical music.
He’s usually identified with the free music side of things through recorded and other sessions with the likes of bassist Michael Formanek, percussionist Michael Zerang, clarinetist Fran腔is Houle and drummer Hamid Drake. Yet the Madison, Wis.-based guitarist also has advanced a method by which chamber ensembles like the one on this carefully designed CD can develop extended improvisations.
Seemingly a close cousin to Butch Morris’s theory of conduction, Field’s process is built on a tonal system that Stephen Dembski, a University of Wisconsin-Madison music professor, who conducts the quintet here, developed. The American Manual Alphabet and traditional conducting gestures are used by the conductor to select from melodic fragments. Then, as musicians switch between motives, the basic materials for their improvisations — primarily 48 non-linear scales upon which the motives and gestures are built, plus the underlying feel — also change.
What results, at least on this CD, is five examples of abstruse, unconventional chamber music. Truthfully though, the outcome doesn’t sound that dissimilar from other small group, classically oriented pieces for strings, horns and percussion developed by improvisers who haven’t advanced specially designated theories. Additionally, although all the disc’s acrimonious-sounding song titles are Fields’s — who admits that “my porn name would be ‘Dog Drexel,’” as are the first four compositions, this is still overall, ensemble work.
Naming his band in homage to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the guitarist’s playing partners get the space within which to forge their own lines. Interestingly not one has much hard-core jazz background. Clarinet and alto saxophonist Guillermo Gregorio’s history of experimentation stretches from his beginnings in Buenos Aires to his present residency in Chicago. Right now he works with similar committed players like cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Carrie Biolo, who is also on this disc. Percussionist Biolo who has recorded the formal music of Cornelius Cardew and Anthony Braxton has also toured with eccentric guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. Another associate of Lonberg-Holm and Zerang, not to mention Gregorio, oboist and hornist Kyle Bruckmann describes himself as a freelance classical musician.
Conservatory-trained trumpeter Greg Kelley sometimes plays free jazz with veterans like saxophonist Paul Flaherty and Braxton, but spends most of his time exploring the outer limits of textures created by his horn. He has released two notable solo CDs and often performs with other Boston-centred sonic explorers like saxophonist Bhob Rainey.
Kelley’s extended technique gets a suitable showcase on “Conflicted,” its polyrhythmic texture expanded to a longer form than on the other tracks. Advancing to triple tonguing from primary tones that morph between those of a baroque piccolo trumpet and breathy intervals, the initial theme is advanced by unison clarinet and vibes. As well, Bruckmann’s English horn articulates the instrument’s standard tone, but much tarter and sharper than classical types would expect. Eventually Gregorio’s alto saxophone and Fields’s nylon-string guitar alternate long lines until a harmonic blend of most of the instruments nearly create liturgical organ chords. Staccato pitch sliding arising from horn trills, trumpet blasts and harsh electric guitar fills soon turns repetitive mirroring the title, as feedback-laden licks presage a whining horn vamp gradually dissolving into silence.
“Pissed,” the shortest — at less than 8½ minutes — track is also the only other piece to truly reflect its appellation. It’s noisy, with smeared splutter from the trumpeter contrasting with woodwinds’ multiphonics and some metallic tone slivers from the vibes. Then discordant electric guitar notes join with the oboe to goose the theme into a higher pitch. At this point, Kelley seems to be fully inhabiting his horn, blaring as he comes up with balloon inflation sounds that mix with unpitched percussion hocketing and rococo horn lines.
Although longer, “Bummed” and “Agitated” may revolve around a shifting tonal centre and highlight conflicting musical patterns, but by this points the smears and multiphonics have been expected, like the sound of a pooch whose bark is worse than his bite. As a matter of fact, the edgy wooden-sounding percussion, legato oboe tones and resonant Hawaiian guitar allusion on the former and quieter vibes and nylon-string plucks on the later seem to suggest unified forward motion rather than polyrhythmic exploration. The adjective “pleasant” even comes to mind. It’s almost as if what you though was a ferocious junkyard hound has been revealed as a fluffy lap dog.
Metallic as all get out, “Medicated” — poor puppy Drexel — while notable on its own seems to be in variance with the other tracks. Software-constructed from Ensemble solo improvisations by Gregory Taylor, the result is wiggles, whooshes, whistles and multi-tonal echoes that can probably be linked to reed blasts, tingling bells and outer- space rockabilly guitar licks. Including what appears to be tapes running backwards creating voices like David Seville’s Chipmunks, the piece builds up to electronic drones and ends with a reverberating vibe note.
Taken together the entire project is satisfying, though not outstanding. If the pseudo-electronica had been dispensed with and more emphasis put on toughening up the initial polyrhythmic invention, things would have been more striking. Right now, though, it can satisfy many — especially those following the saga of Fields’s ever-changing Ensemble — and suggest new interest in what else the guitarist can create as a composer. — Jazz Weekly and Jazz Word
Self proclaimed programmatic music, MAMET is a series of interlocking compositions “guided by” five of the plays written by American playwright David Mamet. Mamet, the wordsmith, is notorious for the care he puts into the cadences of his dialogue and Madison, Wisc.-based guitarist Scott Fields has tried to reflect both the words and the structure of the plays in his tunes.
How well does he succeed? Quite well in a musical sense, since the improvisations created by the guitarist and his helpmates — Chicago drummer Michael Zerang and New York bassist Michael Formanek — could certainly stand on their own. But whether each properly reflects the dramatic work it’s supposed to represent is more of a moot point. Keeping in mind that the guitar here represents Mamet’s female characters and the bass his male ones helps prolong the idea.
An almost 22 minute tour-de-force — and the longest track on the disc — “The Woods” goes the farthest towards reifying Fields’ thesis. Depicting a two-character play that simmers with an undercurrent of suppressed violence which finally explodes in the final scene, the sounds move from nearly inaudible at the beginning to arena rock level at the end. Beginning with hushed bass notes, percussion clicks and the odd guitar lick, a cowbell suggests the rural setting. Following the original melancholy theme, all bowed bass and cymbal runs, a bass drum wash and cymbal swish introduces the guitar, which becomes louder as the seconds tick by. This lyrical guitar section is supposed to reflect the female character’s hope that her relationship will last, but a deep, dark, masculine bass solo seems to foreshadow its doom. Finally, after harsh guitar notes which are offered up like dagger thrusts, a furious physical fight is depicted. Fields concentrates his repeated held notes on staccato screeches and the savagery of Jimi Hendrix-style feedback. All three musicians operate at magnified fortissimo for a while until the melancholy theme returns at the conclusion.
One of Mamet’s most famous works, “Oleanna”, about the transformation of a power relationship between a female student and a male professor, thrives in this setting as well. With Zerang’s percussion keeping things moving in the background, over the course of the tune Field’s guitar lines gradually gain in the strength and intensity as Formanek’s bass moves from a strong bowed part to short, deep, plucked notes which almost slow to stasis. Reflecting sameness in tempo and atmosphere, the other tracks are less satisfactory, but that perhaps may be a function of Mamet’s themes rather than Fields’ conceptions. Still, trying to relate Zerang’s percussion to playing cards being dealt or money jingling on “Prairie Du Chien” may be too much of a stretch — especially for those who haven’t seen the play.
Held to a different standard than the usual guitar, bass and drums work out, Fields has to be commended for his imagination as well as for what he has produced. Convincingly, for the greatest part of the discs, the musicians have used their skills to put remarkable improvised flesh on the programmatic compositional bones.
Exploring an unusual musical byway, Fields has created a disc that can be thought about as well as heard. — Jazz Word