|Adam Fairhall, Seth Bennett and Johnny Hunter
Fragments (2017) is a trio album led by drummer Johnny Hunter with pianist Adam Fairhall and bassist Seth Bennett. With just three tracks over 75 minutes, the album combines pre-written ‘fragments’ with long-form improvisation. AJ Dehany spoke to Adam Fairhall.
LondonJazz News: It’s interesting to compare this to the Beck Hunters album (Mick Beck, Johnny Hunter, Anton Hunter), which also has a 30-minute track, but that trio is more abstract both in the playing and the instrumentation. This Fragments album itself is slightly more abstract than what I’ve heard and seen you do with solo piano.
Adam Fairhall: You’re right that the music with this trio is generally more abstract than my solo stuff. I guess free and ‘outside’ playing has been in my bag almost as long as stride and ragtime, though, and it depends on the project as to which idioms get drawn upon. I do play completely free improv in some projects (there’s an album out on SLAM called The Spirit Farm, an improvising six-piece including me, Johnny and Anton), and a more post-bop approach in others. With this trio, the idioms are a response to both the free improvisation involved and the written fragments themselves. The fragments actually vary in idiom, from non-tonal lines based on a set of intervals to chords and grooves that are in a definite key. So the idiom varies in little ways throughout, making it less of an overall free blowout and encouraging more stylistic nooks and crannies as the pieces progress.
LJN: Is this Johnny’s influence? The trio’s an interesting constellation of stars: Seth’s very lyrical, Johnny’s kind of intricately detailed, and you’re usually the stylistic pierrot but here you’re a bit more… third-stream maybe… (to use the example of a kind of non-idiomatic music that is now established as its own idiom – qv ‘free jazz’). Is what you’re doing consciously different or did that happen because of the trio interactions – or the selection of the elements of material in reference to the trio interplay?
AF: Johnny did write most of the fragments (although after a while we all started to contribute), so he definitely guided the overall sound, at least at the beginning. The fragments must be quite hard to spot! Some of them are single phrases that a listener might find indistinguishable from the preceding improvisation, but which cue an event. For example in the first and second tracks there’s a point about 10 mins in (can’t remember exactly) where we play unison stabs. Those events are cued by single phrases, but the phrases are non-tonal rather than hooky or ‘melodic’, so the listener probably wouldn’t be able to tell that they were composed. The unison stabs would probably, therefore, come as a surprise. I ‘work up’ to the phrase by introducing elements of its intervallic content in the section that leads up to it, so the other two know it’s coming and we collectively prepare for it. Other fragments are more distinguishable to the listener, with chords, grooves and melodies, and it’s up to us to work up to them in a coherent and creative way. It took quite a lot of practice to get the hang of doing this; we’ve actually been working on this trio since 2013!
LJN: I’m intrigued by this technique of incorporating fragments in improvisations. I’ve been trying to find out how Cath Roberts’s crazy graphical charts work and I suspect there are certain similarities in that the ‘notated’ elements are kicked around in a spontaneously devised structure. Are there any clues for the listener – or is the point to confound any supposed binarism between composition and improvisation? It seems to exploit that tension nicely! If that’s what it does..? Anton Hunter did something like this with the Article XI album, he sort of band-sourced little themes and incorporated them, so I guess it’s different in that his fragments are part of the compositional more than the improvisational texture – but there I go setting up that binarism again, it’s so easy to do!
AF: I think we see composition and improvisation as ‘interpenetrating’; both are distinguishable practices but their boundaries are blurred. Working in this way – introducing composition into improvisation rather than the other way around – just allows us to find new ways to play with the virtues of both. It helps you see both in a new light, and you’re right that a tension, or dialogue, between the two is exploited. And it helps to break down pre-conceptions about the characteristics of each (e.g. that composition dictates overall form), so in that sense the way that binary thinking is embedded in conventional jazz practice is subverted.
But yeah, I agree that this way of working has much in common with Cath’s. I think one difference is that we don’t know what fragments we’ll end up using when we start a piece. And you’re right about Anton embedding improv-generated material back into a compositional structure. I don’t think you were reinforcing binaries when you said that; you were just discussing the relationship between two discrete things!
LJN: Does this trio have a live presence?
AF: We actually did a couple of album launch gigs – one in Manchester and one at the Vortex – that we didn’t really invite anyone to!
LJN: What piano are you playing on this album? Your solo album was characterized by those pianos you lucked into on tour.
AF: The piano was actually a grand piano in a studio in Leeds. It does sound a bit worn, but I’ve got a soft spot for less than pristine pianos. You’re right though, I definitely lucked out on the solo tour/album!
LJN: So you weren’t using your ‘ship’s piano’? What even is that!?
AF: My ship’s piano was a tiny acoustic piano that fitted into the back of my car! they were made for ships in the early part of the 20th century. Mine was the smallest model made. Unfortunately, it sounded terrible. There’s a reason pianos are so big! So I sold it…
LJN: Where was the album recorded? I liked the ‘live chamber’ feel, another kind of nice tension there. How much did you record and over what timescale? How did you make the selections? I did an interview with Zac Gvi who recorded an album of solo piano but spent years letting the sequence grow in his mind. Spiritualized took five years to mix their 1997 masterpiece. I can kind of dig that, it’s always either a desk mix on the day or absolute agony forever after, right? So this album has appeared comparatively quickly!?
AF: We recorded all the material in one night-time studio session. There was only one track we didn’t use for the album. Taking five years to complete an album sounds amazing, but it would be a bit of a luxury for us! Unless you’ve got daily free access to a studio and engineer, or you’re a rock star, it would be difficult! Mind you, we spent four years practising so that we could do the album in one night!
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk