Simon H Fell: Raggedy And Rhapsodic At Kings Place

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The image that graces the souvenir booklet of Kings Place's Time Unwrapped season is worth a moment or two's attention. A grandfather clock leans into a musician, whose head is obscured by the object, yet his bowing right hand and cradling left are enough to suggest the timepiece is a double-bass. Nothing could be more appropriate for tonight's concert, which sees Simon H Fell, a skilled practitioner of said instrument, present an ambitious suite of compositions called 'The Ragging Of Time'.

As we soon discover, the title is as much telescopic as panoramic, a modus operandi for Fell's quintet – clarinetist Alex Ward, trumpeter Percy Pursglove, trombonist Robert Jarvis and drummer Paul Hession – to navigate around the century-old history of improvised music, underlining the core principles of syncopation and all things raggedy while catapulting into entirely contemporary territory. Certainly, the spirit of the recently departed Roswell Rudd seems to float through the air at times, especially during the first set where the Dixieland-avant-garde continuum of which he was a part resonates through the sheer potency of music which both dances and detours on a strong, often two-beat pulse. Now resident in France, Fell, with his impressive history as a composer, as documented by his work on Emanem as well as wide range of playing experience that reaches right back to gigs with Derek Bailey, leads the band through material that is often characterised by melodic dot-dash that always demands similarly combustible improvisatory statements from his collaborators. One thrilling moment sees a Pursglove solo build on one consistently staccato eighth note, while precise, pithy phrases spin off that centre, implying a marching band reduced to a single piece of brass. That effectively sets the tone for the evening as the blend of concision and expansion frames much of the composing as well as improvising, and a major part of the appeal of Fell's scores is precisely his ability to create music with considerable forward momentum, sometimes through hard swing, sometimes through serialist rigour, that dissolves into eerie, spectral contemporary chamber music.

As the evening progresses the three horns become increasingly foregrounded. The richness of Jarvis' swells of bass and Pursglove's range of distortions, culminating in a solo in which his tone acquires the grave, gravelly slur of a Stratocaster, serves the music well. But the sound manipulations are spread right across the stage, as Fell's use of finger cymbals and sundry objects as plectrums opens up another avenue of timbres that again reinforces the general feeling of almost charmingly scratchy austerity in the scores. Having said that, a Ward solo consolidates and possibly exceeds that remit. Pushing the clarinet right over the head of the microphone, virtually swallowing it whole, he produces a shower of stark, braying trills that picks up on the stinging wah-wah sub-text of Pursglove's previous statement. It is a truly mesmeric episode for the way an acoustic device is imbued with electric and electrifying energy, the daring compounded by sparkling new timbres caused by the removal of the mouthpiece and continued fleet fingering of the now guitar-ish horn.

Artists such as Steve Lacy were particularly effective at being simultaneously in and out of numerous traditions and Fell is a welcome supplement to that lineage. He has an idiosyncratic way as a composer and arranger that places fraught suspense and plaintive appeal within technically challenging but also physically rousing pieces. Raggedy and rhapsodic, Fell's pirouettes are an enticing way in to Time Unwrapped.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Christophe Pean

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