by Ian Mann
March 22, 2019
An absorbing and compelling listening experience. The trio’s music offers much in terms of light and shade with plenty of variation in terms of mood and dynamics.
Northern Contemporary nc003)
Fragments is a new trio featuring three leading improvising musicians from the North of England, pianist Adam Fairhall, double bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter.
All three are busy, in demand musicians who have appeared on the Jazzmann web pages fairly frequently thanks to their involvement in other projects.
Manchester based Fairhall has worked as a sideman in bands led by trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall as well as pursuing a productive solo career. Fairhall’s recordings under his own name include “Second Hand Blues” and the excellent “The Imaginary Delta” (2012), both collaborations with the electronics artist Paul J. Rogers. “The Imaginary Delta” also included contributions from a wider ensemble of Manchester and London jazz musicians. My review of that exceptional recording can be read here;
In recent years Fairhall has become increasingly immersed in fully improvised music in a variety of different contexts including the groups Ant Traditions (with guitarist Dave Birchall), The Markov Chain (with bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Paul Hession) and Spirit Farm (with Corey Mwamba on vibes and percussion, Christophe de Bezenac on sax, Dave Kane on bass, Anton Hunter on guitar and Johnny Hunter at the drums). Meanwhile The Revival Room features him playing organ alongside Johnny Hunter and saxophonist Mark Hanslip.
Fairhall has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history and jazz piano styles and is skilled at updating these elements into a contemporary context, as evidenced “The Imaginary Delta2” and by his solo piano album “Friendly Ghosts” (Efpi Records, 2017).
He has also become fascinated by arcane keyboard instruments and regularly incorporates the sounds of toy pianos, Indian harmoniums and other mechanical keyboard instruments into his work, often subjecting them to prepared piano techniques.
Fairhall and Johnny Hunter are regular collaborators and the Manchester based drummer also leads his own quartet. Hunter has also been a contributor to bands led by his guitarist brother Anton and he is a regular fixture in groups led by the London based saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts, among them Sloth Racket, Word of Moth and Favourite Animals.
Hunter has also worked with Nat Birchall and with the experimental quartet Mercury, led by saxophonist Tom Thorp. A busy musician who works all over the North of England and beyond he has also recorded with bands led by pianist Misha Gray, saxophonists Martin Archer and Pete Lyons and with the bands Marley Chingus, Blind Monk Trio, Engine Room Favourites, Beck Hunters and ska/dub outfit Skamel.
Leeds based Seth Bennett has performed with the bands Word of Moth, Sloth Racket and Favourite Animals, all led by saxophonist Cath Roberts, and also with Metamorphic, led by pianist and composer Laura Cole. With Cole he also runs the eighteen piece Bennett-Cole Orchestra and the pair also collaborate in a trio with drummer Peter Fairclough.
Bennett’s other current projects include Nut Club, a trio with drummer John Arnesen and saxophonist Ollie Dover. Meanwhile 7 Hertz teams him with Helen Baines (clarinets) and Yvonna Magda (violin) and he is also part of a further trio featuring violist Aby Vulliamy and trombonist George Murray.
Bennett is also a member of Mathilde, a project combining improvised music and dance.
The paths of Fairhall, Hunter and Bennett are closely linked and the Fragments trio was first instigated as a ‘workshop band’ by Hunter, the common denominator, in 2013. At first glance the group appears to be a conventional piano trio but from the outset the threesome have adopted an innovative and distinctive approach to composition and improvisation.
Before analysing the music itself it’s probably best to explain something about the trio’s methods of music making. The press release accompanying this album describes their approach thus;
“Rather than incorporating improvisation into composed frameworks the trio start by improvising freely, and then may, at any point, begin playing a ‘fragment’, one of a series of pre-composed musical material. The choice of ‘fragment’ and the way that it is integrated into the improvisation and what happens to the ‘fragment’ after it is played are all open to the spontaneity of the moment. Each ‘fragment’ is designed to inform a different sound space and is both substantial enough to give the players something to ‘chew on’ and flexible enough to allow many possible interpretations. They are also varied in idiom, ensuring a constantly changing listening experience. The trio are in dialogue with each other, with the composed ‘fragments’, and with the piano trio format’s illustrious past”.
It’s a method of working not entirely to dissimilar to that of Cath Roberts’ group Sloth Racket and its larger cousin Favourite Animals. Hunter and Bennett work with both bands and the musicians improvise freely around Roberts’ compositional ‘sketches’, these often scored graphically, often coalescing around a powerful written riff.
The album “Fragments” was recorded in March 2017 by engineer Michael Ward and was later mixed by Ward and Bennett. Packaged in a DIY style cardboard sleeve it also features artwork by Sheffield based artist Marion Rout.
It features two lengthy pieces, each lasting over half an hour, and a shorter nine and a half minute ‘coda’. The titles are purely functional and reference the year of the album’s recording.
As Adrian Pallant’s review for London Jazz News observed this is not an album for the faint hearted with the opening “2017i” setting the benchmark in terms of challenging intensity. Fairhall swarms all over the keyboard, ably supported by Hunter’s skittering drums and Bennett’s powerfully plucked bass. Comparisons with Cecil Taylor are inevitable while Pallant also detects elements of Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk and even Duke Ellington.
It’s not all conducted at 100 mph, there are moments of quieter reflection too, some of these dark in terms of mood, which involve Hunter’s use of small percussive devices. This is music that ebbs and flows with passages of tumbling intensity juxtaposed with episodes of gentle lyricism or of brooding solemnity. The techniques of the players are never in doubt, with Bennett’s bass sometimes assuming the lead, and the strength of their rapport is almost uncanny - one can almost hear them thinking. This music may be far from easy listening but the music of Fragments takes the listener on absorbing journey that offers up fresh surprises around every bend. Bennett takes up the bow for a grainy dialogue with Hunter’s drums as the music extends into the realms of extended technique with Fairhall working ‘under the lid’.
In this context the composed elements, the ‘fragments’ that give the trio its name, aren’t always obvious, helping to give the music the seamless organic flow and spontaneous narrative arc that characterises the best improv.
“2017ii” is generally less frenetic than its predecessor with a greater emphasis on atmosphere and extended technique. It commences with a brief dialogue between pizzicato bass and drums with Fairhall subsequently joining the discussion, the trio discourse generally more measured than in episode one but still sometimes embracing a bustling, scurrying urgency as rapidly darting piano motifs are supported by busy bass and drums. Bennett, whose arco work has always impressed in Roberts’ bands, again flourishes the bow to good effect as Fairhall coaxes ethereal twinkling sounds from the very upper limits of the piano’s register and Hunter rustles furtively behind the kit, acting as a kind of avant garde colourist. Later the exchanges get more vigorous, gnarled and knotty, before becoming more lyrical and atmospheric once again. Some of these passages are genuinely beautiful and wouldn’t sound out of place on an ECM recording, these perhaps representing the written ‘fragments’. There’s then an extended passage of imaginative solo drumming from Hunter prior to an intense collective crescendo featuring piano and vigorously bowed bass that briefly threatens to conclude the piece. Instead resolution is achieved via a chillingly beautiful passage featuring the chime of Fairhall’s piano and the sounds of Bennett’s deeply resonant bowed bass, these augmented by Hunter’s percussive embellishments. Clocking in at nearly thirty four minutes the piece represents another absorbing and compelling musical journey that embraces a variety of moods and dynamics, with the composed ‘fragments’ arguably more readily evident.
“2017iii” maintains the reflective mood almost throughout, commencing with the sounds of glacial piano, cymbal scrapes and sparse but resonant pizzicato bass. Despite its relative brevity the piece evolves slowly and organically as the trio place the emphasis on retaining a single mood or atmosphere throughout. Bennett’s plucked bass, with its deep, woody tone is prominent as Hunter provides the subtlest of percussion shadings, again in a colourist’s role. Bennett also makes effective and atmospheric use of the bow as Fairhall plays a relatively low key role, playing melodically and keeping things simple.
Although it clearly won’t be for everybody “Fragments” makes for an absorbing and compelling listening experience. The trio’s music offers much in terms of light and shade with plenty of variation in terms of mood and dynamics within the two longer pieces. Yes, it’s intense at times, but it’s an intensity that goes beyond mere bluster, and there are moments of genuine beauty too. The standard of musicianship is excellent throughout in a genuinely democratic trio performance that never gets boring. Although it ultimately sounds very different Necks fans may care to check out Fragment’s style of long piece piano trio improvisation.
blog comments powered by Disqus