Positions & Descriptions (Clean Feed)
by Phil Freeman
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The free jazz orchestra has a long and raucous history. (I analyzed some notable recordings for Perfect Sound Forever in 2003.) This group, organized by and performing a piece by bassist Simon H. Fell (I’m gonna go ahead and guess that SFE stands for Simon Fell Ensemble), isn’t as wall-blasting as the Globe Unity Orchestra or some of Cecil Taylor‘s large groups can be; in fact, there are many sections that are soft and quite beautiful. At the same time, there are sections of this vast (15 musicians plus a conductor, 79 minutes) work that swing and churn like a mixture of Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa circa Uncle Meat, and Pierre Boulez.
The piece, which was recorded live at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK in 2007, goes through five movements, each of which is divided into subsections labeled “Positions.” These are bridged by interludes known as “Descriptions”; there are five of those, too. The first four positions are atmospheric and vaguely orchestral, full of hums and zings and lots of space between sounds. This mode, strongly reminiscent of Euro improv but also of horror or sci-fi movie scores, continues all the way through descriptions 2 and 3, entitled “FZ pour PB” and “Commentaire de ‘Fz pour PB.’” Then things take off a little bit, as the lurching Movement III (positions 6-9) begins with much more activity from the horns and a sort of off-kilter swing. There’s also an extraordinarily beautiful, mournful violin solo by Mifune Tsuji. But soon enough, things drop down to an ominous simmer again, with reeds offering slow-burning solos that are as much about the flapping of valves as the production of notes. In the back, guitar and piano make very soft sounds, as though not wanting to disturb anyone.
The band lurches back into life for the final, nearly 24-minute Movement V. A sort of chamber jazz for large ensemble, it sways along for a minute or two, before Mark Sanders‘ drums and Joe Morris‘ stinging (but ultra-clean) electric guitar take over. They’re succeeded by what I think is a baritone sax (there are a lot of low-end instruments in the reed section), then piano and some whooshing “extended technique” trumpet work…the piece goes on like this, a variety of instrumentalists taking spotlight turns that last just long enough to be exciting, without ever letting anyone wear out his or her welcome.
The liner notes indicate that this recording is a combination of live performance and pre-recorded electronic elements, with some sections scored and others improvised. The whole thing is utterly seamless, though, with no awkward moments, and any listener with an ear for this kind of thing will almost certainly be held rapt from beginning to end.
With a group of this size, it’s probably reasonable to list personnel, so here we go: Alex Ward and Andrew Sparling on clarinets, Jim Denley on flutes, Chris Batchelor on trumpet, Tim Berne and Damien Royannais on saxophones, Rhodri Davies on harp, Philip Thomas on piano and celesta, Joe Morris on guitar, Steve Beresford on electronics, Mifune Tsuji on violin, Philip Joseph on theremin, Simon Fell on bass and electronics, Joby Burgess on percussion, Mark Sanders on drums, and Clark Rundell conducting.
You’re not likely to hear another record that sounds anything like this anytime soon. Highly recommended.