scott fields

Scott Fields, musician

Five Frozen Eggs

While looking for a point of light helping me through a better assimilation of Five Frozen Eggs’ refined complexity (and considering that I hadn’t listened to the original 1996 release) my eye fell on a quasi-nonchalant clue thrown by the nominal leader in the liners: all seven pieces were created following methods engendered by the mind of composer Stephen Dembski. Hopefully Fields will forgive the rapid investigations made to fill the umpteenth gap in my presumed knowledge, but now the conceptualization of the intentions lying behind this work appears clear: Dembski is a stalwart at the University of Wisconsin-Madison music faculty and — among diverse talents — a man who constantly looks for new ways (including the development of softwares) to generate broad-minded compositional structures. Fields, a regular collaborator, has always been concerned with tearing down the damp walls that delimit jazz and other varieties of artistic contemporariness. All of a sudden this reviewer realized that the suppositional reticence fought over the course of the first half-dozen of listens was instead merely screening a series of transparent interactions in a small universe where contrapuntal fungibility is the (flexible) criterion to follow. 

The rest came easy. Marilyn Crispell courteously reclaims a role of co-protagonist thanks to her chordal radiancy imbued of classily radical obstinance. Hans Sturm has the honor of opening the album with a splendid solo (entirely notated, as stressed by Fields), then keeps nourishing the lowermost of the audio spectrum with a combination of drama and logicality. Hamid Drake impressively dissects the motoric principles, exploring secret erogenous zones in the music’s animate organic qualities, stroking and tapping a fine-grained fresco that spreads across the program, remaining nearly silent when he feels like. There are several atmospheric and stylistic changes in here — from the contemplation of the title track and “Laogai” to the discordant march of “Little Soldiers For Science”, the lone place where the tolerant boss utilizes a modicum of distortion. The only traces of prototypical swing are found in “The Archaeopteryx and the Manatees”, quieted afterwards by a gorgeous lyrical interlude. Enough words, already: just enjoy the intelligence of a quartet for which the definition “acoustic facade” will never exist. — The Squid’s Ear


OZZO/Moersbow

The history behind the names of these two pieces for improvising chamber group is too difficult to synthesize here; check the liners or google around, also to learn about the various evolutions of the very orchestra’s appellative. What’s transparent is that the opening period is dedicated to Masami Akita (aka Merzbow), though Fields and his companions decided to approach the task with the sagacious expertise of a qualified ensemble paying homage to a time-honored composer rather than a Japanese noise merchant. The outcome is a superb paradigm of how to carry out a joint improvisation, the timbres so consistently interconnected in different permutations and dynamics that giving privileges to “lead” designs and distinct ideas becomes a pointless exercise. Our friendly advice is to relinquish a bit of focus and abandoning yourselves to a compelling stream of beautifully emitted music, nurturing one’s yearning for density in a collective statement without losing grip on the poetic aspects of the diverse instrumental idioms. 

The first, and a sizable chunk of the fourth movement of “OZZO” are plain wonders, replete with fine games of call and response, tactful probing of quietness and recurring parallelisms between assorted groups (sax, accordion and strings in particular evidence, with Thomas Lehn’s synthesizer adding pinches of analogue salt and the flutists inserting small enigmas throughout). The rest is more directly reminiscent of the conductor’s style both in terms of composition and as a guitarist: minuscule cells and dissonant quirks succeed and involve, the interest maintained by the extreme unsettledness generated by the palette’s variety. With musicians of the caliber of Frank Gratkowski, Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Melvyn Poore, Angelika Sheridan and Georg Wissel among the many — everybody deserving a “well done” — this live recording (Cologne’s Loft, January 2009) is as impeccable as a pre-planned studio session. — Touching Extremes


Afiadacampos

Both proven improvising guitarists and composers, two lucid cerebrums shining under the spotlight in the digipak’s inside photo, Sharp and Fields present the second recorded chapter of an ongoing partnership after Scharfefelder on Clean Feed. Armed with, respectively, a 1985 Thomas Reg’n and a 1998 Collings OM-2H — hold your drooling, jealous handlers of cheap Taiwanese imitations — the comrades cancel the obnoxious smell of scalar mustiness and rubber-nose electric tones completely, also sharing the compositional duties (five tracks are by E#, four by SF). 

Don't let the “compositional” term fool you, though. There’s a lot of improvisation in the 57 minutes of Afiadacampos — and, for the large part, of the finely structured kind. As the Chicagoan himself puts it, the pair is “interested in fuzzing up relationships between written and improvised sounds, rejecting the free-jazz model in which heads are matched with unrelated blowing”. Not a truer word: even when the instruments are tuned according to specific ratios (as in “Earth Ecology”) a logical sense underlies the interplay, clouds of hovering harmonics fighting first, revealing splendid rainbows later. This writer made the ultimate test, abandoning the listening room to hear how the adjacent partials were received at a distance; there was more harmony in what was caught by the ears at that moment than in an archetypal duet. That peculiar synchronization is the fruit of shrewdly elicited resonant interferences, to which a reactive listener should adapt instead of remaining mouth agape, waiting for the habitual dose of Superlocrian-spiced sticky molasses and chordal clichés. 

The acoustic timbres superb, the percussive aspect explored through tapping on necks and bodies, nicely coarse eBowed drones and dented strings (“Delta Delta”) and bionic rasgueados altering the values in the commonly intended aesthetic scale; each piece offers at least a couple of intriguing facets that Sharp and Fields investigate and exploit implacably. Their work convinces because the approach is thorough and resolute, not characterized by the grasshopper-like futility of sterile digital virtuosity. This might be one of the best guitar albums of 2010, worthy of being played loud and often. The house will be thankful. — The Squid’s Ear


what we talk

The theorbo is a lute with an incredibly long neck, Stephan Rath a master of this instrument specialized in early music repertoires. Scott Fields is, well, Scott Fields — in this occasion picking a gorgeously sounding nylon string guitar made by Robert Ruck. In 2007, MusikTriennale Köln run the series “Solos For Duos, Improvisation From Yesterday And Today” pairing musicians coming from opposite grounds on related instruments: exactly what these two artists needed for their encounter. 

This composition, like in other works by the Cologne-residing American guitarist, is based on spoken language: in this case, an imaginary conversation whose tones and accents were transformed into notational concepts enriched with improvised elements. The instrumental range is quite similar except for some deeply resounding basses, so the challenge while listening to What We Talk is essentially to determine who is playing what in a number of circumstances (expert ears will definitely tell the timbres apart, though). As the composer puts it, “roles can change instantly and seamlessly or can disappear entirely“. The reward for the effort is music that sounds clear as a sunny autumn morning, also thanks to the fantastic quality of the recording (hats off, Reinhard Kobialka). The parts are always absolutely intelligible, even when the contiguousness of the upper partials elicits a slight meshing of natural reverberations, which is a wonderful effect if you ask me. This stuff is going to gratify devotees of serious acoustic interplay, including icons from the times of yore such as Lenny Breau and Ralph Towner (provided that the above mentioned aficionados are prepared to step a little further in terms of contemporariness). 

The record is the demonstration of how ambitiousness and sharp-mindedness easily live together when the involved parties are both willing to listen to the counterpart and to give something earnest and, at the same time, logical to the audience. An ideal synthesis of technique, heart and brain, an utterly calming album with a uniquely refined edge. Oh, and the track called “The Very Moment I Saw Your Facebook Page I Just Knew We Are Soulmates Forever” confirms Fields as the George Foreman of titling. — Touching Extremes


Samuel

Look for the probable in Scott Fields’ work and prepare yourselves to bang your head hard, for a record like Samuel— the successor to Beckett on Clean Feed — is designed to pose questions, not answer them. The lone certainty derived from weeks of attentive scrutiny is the acceptance of my fraught ignorance, already creeping through my brain after having read Dan Warburton’s über-detailed liners, which explain this music — and perhaps Fields’s art at large — better than if you spoke with the man himself. Then came the actual sonic content, completely scored by attributing parts of the celebrated playwright’s texts to specific instruments (the ensemble comprises saxophonist Matthias Schubert, cellist Scott Roller and percussionist John Hollenbeck) and — in live performances — putting the sounds in conjunction with an exact lighting plan depending on the interplay’s ever-changing dynamics. 

Each of the three movements is terrific per se, due to a series of different aspects. “Not I” is so technically problematical and frenziedly arrhythmic in its development that the only way in which this writer managed to welcome and somehow digest that composite flux was a hint of silently convulsive tap dancing during the routine morning wait for the train to Rome. Unpredictable changes of accent and systematic disintegration of tonality connected to noises, gestures and faces, knottily interrelated outbursts in which the single parts occasionally seem slightly off beam, whereas everything obeys instead to an dispassionate yet enlivening logic. The leader’s elegantly malicious guitar is more in evidence in the subsequent “tunes”, “Ghost Trio” and “Eh Joe”, both moderately akin to jazz ballads in a way — the kind of “jazz” that is not taught at Berklee — but with such a number of false starts and hiccupping cadenzas that might cause a careless listener to feel seasick. The musicians splinter every available paragraph while sidestepping stylistic blatancy throughout, providing us with continuous demonstrations of their incredibly responsive commitment to the music. If Fields didn’t manage to “work on the nerves of the audience”, he surely succeeded in making this reviewer’s stab at depicting this document appear fairly laughable. One and a half upturned nose, all being well. — Touching Extremes


Fugu

These pieces were initially created with the intention of providing substance for a choreography by Li Chiao-Ping, whose dancers apparently couldn’t manage to follow the material’s erratic metres well enough to actually bring the proposed collaboration to a completion. Providentially the sounds remain, and they’re refined as much as necessary to stand alone for regular CD-fuelled consumption. The leader shows a superb command of nylon strings alternating disobedient clusters, asymmetrical rasgueados, swinging impertinence and poetic linearity depending on the circumstance. The lyrical counter altar is represented by cellist Matt Turner, who often steals the spotlight with the daydreaming rigour of his beautiful tone, finely complemented by vibraphonist Robert Stright’s shimmering unselfishness. An outstanding rhythm section — Geoff Brady on percussion, John Padden on double bass — provides a pulse that is full of zip but never petulant, contributing to the dismemberment of potential lassitude — a constant peril both in jazz and any kind of music conceived for dance. Fields confirms himself to be a name to keep an eye on all the time, especially when analyzing the way in which he frequently relinquishes a role of guitar-wielding protagonist while privileging a considerable transparency in the overall design, in turn cleverly enriched by a magnificent stability in the composed/improvised ratio. — Temporary Fault


drawings

There’s an enhanced CD among the recent releases by Ernesto Rodrigues’ Creative Sources called Drawings. The “enhancement” consists in a 55-minute MP4 video — Der Raum, by Arno Oehri — which shows the working processes between Scott Fields and German visual artist Thomas Hornung, who lives in Basel and spends about one hour every evening by making spur-of-the-moment drawings on A4 paper sheets, “typically in black but occasionally in colored chalk,” as per the guitarist’s words. The three collaborators first met in 2004 during a residency in the Swiss Alps, yet only after a while the American decided to dig out something from those sketches, converting them in a multi-page graphic score whose constitution is better explained by the composer himself in the liner notes. 

Fields, one of the most interesting phrase scramblers in contemporary jazz also in more “regular” outings (check his efforts on Clean Feed), asks the listeners to play the 98 audio tracks of the disc in shuffle mode — the same method applied to Hornung’s 171 pictures, previously selected, when he performs this work live. This modus operandi is not really crucial for the ultimate result, as the severely fragmentary conciseness of the solos causes the whole to sound exactly as a haphazard reproduction of the initial program even when the record is played straight; I seriously doubt that a remote chance of memorizing this album exists. What needs to be noted is how brilliantly this man manages to conjure up a growing quantity of uncommon timbres, chordal surges, skeletal counterpoints and unclassifiable pitches from his axe (manipulated conventionally or through various kinds of implementations), elevating the music to a degree of consequentiality on a par with its pictographic complement. — Temporary Fault


Scharfefelder

Listen to Scott Fields’ opinion: “(…) collaborations between bald guitarists are, by their nature, irresistibly charming (…)”. Not a truer word. And the hairless virtuosity we’re given handfuls of in “Scharfefelder” is enough to make me stop thinking about those hyperglycemic crises I experienced decades ago, when the depleted puppy who’s writing these words thought of “Friday Night in San Francisco” as a good starting place to take the instrument a little more seriously. As Goofy would have it, gawrsh. This acoustic duet, recorded at Sharp’s zOaR studio halfway through August 2007, shows that one can still play full chords and let them resonate without being ashamed; and if those shapes proliferate until becoming three or four hundreds — and even badly dissonant, for Christ’s sake — strange halos of peculiar harmonics might invade your terrain and persuade you that flamenco is born again, in a bionic variety (“Doubleviz”) excluding predetermined progressions. Need slanted lines? There are things here which could convince that Sharp and Fields’ fingers are somehow disjointed (“Freefall”); they catch the exact spot where resonant note and wood-ish thud meet, transforming their artistic personae in human bradawls smiling at the listener while punching holes in the residual convictions about that erstwhile tool for serenades and beach hooking. If Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie ever get to hear this, they might be willing to drown in the Sargasso Sea (just kidding, huh? I like some of that stuff, too). Shaven craniums reflecting the open-mouthed admiration of a fellow instrumentalist still willing to learn, impartiality be damned. Not an easy record, in any case: give it the fullest attention and don’t try to use it as background, either you’re a guitarist or not. — Touching Extremes


Bitter Love Songs

Everything in this CD — from the extremely sour liner notes, to the cruelly sneering track titles, to the leader’s “chip-on-a-shoulder” photo in the inlay card of my promo copy — reports of someone who is about to explode following a series of unlucky existential affairs. What better method to channel a potentially destructive fury into a handful of composition for guitar trio, and making them appear delivered from jazz stereotypes as well? That's what happens in Bitter Love Songs, the latest news coming from Scott Fields, whose clean-but-not-too-much tone characterizes a fine brand of dissonant, almost irritating at times, angular tunes where he’s sustained by Sebastian Gramss on double bass and João Lobo on drums. Hammering down phrases that appear as acrid as one’s mood after a rollicking from the office’s chief, Fields sounds similar to a man obsessed, totally unmindful of the establishment of a harmonic permanence. Ostinato-based figurations and chords full of minor seconds and augmented fifths are served like hamburgers at McDonald’s, one after another in deadpan pessimism, until every honeymoon picture on the wall gets ripped off the frame. The calmer settings are tackled with a sort of extreme aloofness, all the more enhanced by a rhythm section that doesn’t want to know what “regularity of pace” means. The guitarist declares to have kept the words of these bitter songs to himself, but there’s no question that his music stings worse than a lawyer’s bill. If John Scofield (note the curious assonance) decided to go harmolodic, maybe he could ask here for a few lessons. — Touching Extremes


Beckett

Beckett was recorded by a strong quartet consisting of Scott Fields (electric guitar), John Hollenbeck (percussion), Scott Roller (cello) and Matthias Schubert (tenor sax). The leader uses “post-free jazz” and “exploratory music” as definitions to help us poor reviewers writing about his vision, in this case setting Samuel Beckett’s short plays in terms of sonic rendition. The CD contains five tracks of what one could call “radical comprovisation,” a no-genre-all-genres series of structural possibilities for instruments to dialogue calmly or look for litigation. On a first approach we could think about entities like Curlew or Doctor Nerve; sometimes things get a little more complicated, though. Fields privileges a clean timbre on his axe, which is fundamental to maintain absolute clarity in his pretty entangled lines. Roller excavates imaginative figurations while remaining an ideal partner for dissonant unisons and ever-evolving, intertwining dissertations with Schubert’s non-conservative vocabulary. Hollenbeck is a bright-minded participant to a collectively sensitive interplay that never ceases to amaze, alternating basic patterns, uncontrollable rolls and sheer bedlam with self-controlled gestural balance and almost exhilarating musicianship. Everything in this disc tends to the instantaneous generation of attitude-permeated linear and textural counterpoint, whose results add spice and intelligence to a music which is only apparently difficult to penetrate, revealing instead many layers and secrets that will make adventurous listeners seriously happy. An advertisement for well-regulated iconoclastic playing, Beckett is one of those releases carrying the same weight of a powerful political statement. Listen and learn, then decide if you still need the velvet touch of deadly boring “jazz.” — Touching Extremes


Dénouement

Guitarist and composer Fields assembled a double trio to interpret the complex nuances of his half-written, half-improvised scores, giving the players circumstantial instructions in order for the compositions to sound like “puzzle pieces,” the six instrumentalists effectively intertwining rhythms and phraseologies yet resulting as a coherent, and ultimately delightful whole. No wonder that this stuff remained unpublished for years, while — to quote the author — “label owners fell in and out of love with the music”: this is fairly difficult material, which in its presumed calmness offers many and one points of observation for a series of crosscurrents mixing modern jazz and quasi-chamber apparitions, spiced by mostly clean-toned if pretty dissonant guitars (Fields and Jeff Parker — yes, Tortoise‘s), elegantly austere, beautifully sustaining basses (Jason Roebke, Hans Sturm), swinging-but-also-pensive drumming (Hamid Drake, Michael Zerang). Divided into seven tracks, whose names are a joy to read — take a look at the full title of “…His late wife…” to have an idea — the 72 minutes of Dénouement do not carry excessive weight at any moment, being instead gifted with considerable musicianship which transports the ensemble towards those heights where the rarefied air of clever interplay is present and easily breathable. Minimal in a way, communicative at various levels, these arrangements show Fields‘ lucid vision and ability to remain within the realms of circuitousness while avoiding those sterile dialectic supplements that uncork the bottles of vintage listlessness typical of dead-end jazz. This is a commendable album to savour delicately, repeatedly, consciously. — Touching Extremes


Frail Lumber

Scott Fields’ penchant for overlaying antithetical forms of instrumental action — typically involving cross-pollinations of improvised sections and more composed structures — finds one of its peak expressions in Frail Lumber, a project carried on with the aid of a string ensemble featuring cellists Daniel Levin and Scott Roller, violists Jessica Pavone and Vincent Royer, violinists Alex Lindner and Mary Oliver plus Elliott Sharp on guitar as well as the leader. The group’s partitioning in four twos of equal instruments is obvious, but this does not imply separation between the parts or disorganized and fragmented music. The five chapters — a total of about 67 minutes — appear in fact as mutating aggregates of harmonic question marks where, in turn, beauty of timbre, displacement of pulse and a general disinclination to follow pre-set strides acquire importance depending on the participants’ instinctive gestures and choices. 

Speaking of which, Fields did give instructions to the performers while setting their decisions and respective sensibilities within a looping fabric where — by wordlessly nodding at certain points — everyone can “invite” other members to join the circumstantial happenings with on-the-spot phrases and movements that help the agglomerative flow to remain complex in relative stability. The composer calls this procedure a “fancy cueing system”, but the lightness of the definition is inversely proportional to the gravity of the resulting music. We remain affected by the awesome electro/acoustic chromaticity, by alternating relative quietness and gradually mounting nervousness, and especially by how effectively a procedure that might potentially lead to untidy scenarios consolidates instead the musicians’ diverse voices and personalities into a cohesive unit. The wealth of involuntarily synchronic sketches even permits the camouflaging of melodic snippets amidst shifting accumulations of tension, as evidenced by the opening moments of “Paulownia” (all titles refer to types of woods and/or trees). 

Make no mistake: this is not an album for enticing an unsuspecting partner during a candlelight dinner. But it’s definitely one of the Cologne-based Chicagoan’s finest ever releases. — The Squid’s Ear


Ostryepolya

Director Pavel Borodin has been growingly active of late, leaving this miserable commentator huffing and puffing as far as reviewing his production is concerned. Let’s try and attempt a catchup run, starting from this excellent film revolving around the practical (and theoretical) aspects that delineate the time-honored partnership between innovative improvising composers and formidable guitarists Sharp and Fields. 

The “theoretical” bit mentioned in the preceding paragraph is located in the “special features” subdivision of the DVD, where the musicians explicate the duo’s rootage and the compositional sources for what they design and conjointly execute. Both gentlemen are inclined to shifting inside and out given structures, setting pitch fields to pick from, and searching for a temporal order coordinating written parts and improvised fragments. Establishing a natural physical flux for such complex ideation is described by Fields as perhaps one of the hardest tasks in the business of writing music outside the rigidness of expectation. I also like to recall a significant sentence by Sharp, according to which working within a chosen system necessarily requires a different perspective in the act of listening; that’s exactly how one should conform to the materials presented in the two concerts comprised by Ostryepolya

Indeed the fundamental importance of these live sets (taped in Cologne in 2009 and 2010) lies behind a simple, but often forgotten principle: a conscientious interaction is a must, Sharp and Fields teaching a lot in that sense as they regularly exchange looks during the performances, nodding in recognition and to change sections, responding to the subtlest nuances (and, why not, harsh scrapes and violent rasgueados) emitted by extremely sensitive steel-stringed instruments. We can observe the differences in the hands’ posture, the attention in selecting a befitting phrase, note or noise in a juncture, the detectable common ground — free jazz to quasi-stochastic semi-regulation, Bailey to avant-blues, and much more. The trained determination of the manual gesturing and the concentrated expression of each artist are captured by intelligent closeups; this, in union with the first-class timbral attributes of finely crafted guitars, contributes to an impression of proximity exalted by the marked left/right separation of the performers in the mix. 

Never anticipate ECM-like reverberations, in spite of a restricted number of occurrences characterized by sparser “gentler” notation and relative scarceness of events; this is, by and large, stuff for audiences able to face recurring trouble (a piece by Sharp is aptly titled “Convolution Now”). Continual clusters, pinched upper partials, spiky dynamics, non-singable lines, dissonant chords, metal tampering, eBow and — above all — a nonconforming attitude towards the act of expliciting unusual ideas via normal instrumentation. And yet, when Borodin’s camera catches glimpses of the scores, you can immediately see that it’s not “normal” methods we’re talking of. Discover the rest for yourselves, and learn something on acoustic problem-solving and acceptance of what is not “harmonic” in a tritely Western meaning. — Touching Extremes


Burning In Water, Drowning In Flames

You know how it goes. While doing something else, a sudden thought crosses the mind to completely detour your focus. As I was examining an atom or two of the huge body of promos amassed around the house and in the notebook, the realization of having not listened to Scott Fields for a long time occurred. A quick search caused a double surprise: not only the last record released by Fields at his own name dates from 2015, it’s also his first proper solo album. And it’s entirely acoustic.

The genesis of Burning In Water, Drowning In Flames is finely chronicled by the composer, so we are not dwelling on it – check for yourselves. The habit of structuring scores after pieces of illustrious writing has not been ditched by Fields, who utilized Charles Bukowski as compositional source for this occasion. Achieving a balance of intelligibility and actual consequence is difficult even for a single sentence, thus one imagines how hard a self-demanding musician tries to extend the effort to a full cycle.

The keyword here is “spacing”. Individual pitches, schismatic chords and unceremonious flurries are all informed by the quality that should be wished by every serious guitarist. That is to say, conveying a feel of accurate delineation within the silences, independently from the complexity of what’s being played. This particular ability warrants a listener’s semi-conscious acceptance of harmonic relationships whose decoding might otherwise be problematic.

This is especially true in the program’s second half: the “Drowning In Flames” suite is in fact built upon a quarter-tone tuning that makes a mockery of many so-called commonsensical approaches on the instrument (translation: you’ll never find Fields involved with scalar routines and ho-hum fingerings). In such a setting, the propagation of the upper partials complies with requirements too peculiar for the average ear. So it’s basically a case of learn to swim, or drown (pun intended).

Perhaps the reviewer has given excessive room to the guitar player. Still, remember that this is a set of compositions, and has to be evaluated accordingly. The gorgeously vibrating halos emanated by the protagonist’s steel-stringed flat-top would alone constitute a valid reason to deepen the study. And yet, the importance of this music cannot be reduced to a mere analysis of technical issues, or to “what-a-great-resonance” chit-chat.

Lesson learned, then. Never keep your eyes off Mr. Fields. — Touching Extremes