(Northern Contemporary – nc003. CD review by Adrian Pallant)
Free improvisation has long intrigued me; partly for the certain discovery of the unexpected and unknown, but also for its ability to divide opinion – to maybe startle or even perplex. For the uninitiated, there can be an element of ‘king’s new clothes’ as established musicians ‘nakedly’ create random and often dissonant sounds between them. Yet, deep down, there can be the reward of hitherto unheard textures and sequences to inspire our own thought and imagery.
Eponymous debut release from trio Fragments – pianist Adam Fairhall, double bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter – reveals a project begun in 2013 as a workshop-band exploration, based on Hunter’s concept of intuitive, shared improvisation which eventually incorporates undisclosed fragments of pre-composed material. The resulting spontaneity is informed by the choice of fragment, the way it is integrated into the improv, and also what happens subsequently. All three players are familiar to northern contemporary jazz audiences. Fairhall’s The Imaginary Delta, a 2011 Manchester Jazz Festival commission also available as an album, was particularly enjoyable to encounter live; Johnny Hunter is pleasingly conspicuous on the Manchester and Liverpool scenes (his debut quartet statement While We Still Can echoing early-1960s jazz excitement); and Bennett is active in multifarious projects up and down the country.
Fragments comprises two, boisterous, 30-minute-plus sessions followed by a final, calmer episode – three movements under the title 2017 (the year of recording) – and their abstract intent is surely to evoke personal responses both from players and listener. These are unadorned, captured moments, Fairhall’s slightly detuned piano (even a cough) adding to the immediacy of it all; and right from the off, in 2017i, his fervency across the keyboard is evident, creating a melange of fast-rolling phrases and energetic, scree-riding momentum. Hunter and Bennett appear to act directly on his direction with skittering embellishment, though the responses may be entirely mutual across this fluid, connecting triangle. One might imagine Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or Thelonious Monk in this atonal maelstrom – and then, there are lucid moments of repose, Bennett’s bass basking in reflective, sustained piano passages. They also explore the less obvious parameters of their instruments – sitar-like glissando bass, scraped piano and bass strings – before an Ellingtonian chase to the finish.
2017ii has a less intense demeanour, allowing space for arco bass calls and a remarkably mesmerising twinkling cluster at the piano’s top range; and its final third finds a more tonal, gospel-tinged home. Nine-minute 2017iii takes its time through percussive jangling, Fairhall’s bluesy piano and Bennett’s pliant bass wandering, moonlit, until they greet the light.
These outstretched landscapes (album cover colourfully illustrated by Sheffield artist Marion Rout) may not be for the musically timorous, and I suggest it requires an involved, open mind to engage with the relentless, sometimes challenging level of information communicated. But it can be an experience which draws us in, the initial clamour becoming more accessible and attractive as it proceeds – a window on the breadth of living, breathing jazz.
Fragments was released on 15 March.
Categories: CD reviews