Charles Wharf & Simon H Fell

Bruces Fingers / BF25

Charles Wharf / reeds, keyboards, Simon H Fell / bass, keyboards

Completely bonkers. From the very appealing outside of this release, one would take it for an ordinary duet album by two of UK free music’s more adventurous players – and how wrong one would be. Only the track titles give away the fact that something quite genuinely demented is going on within.

The disc’s 32 tracks (that’s right) are formed by collaging together a variety of solo and duet performances which form the basic material and are rarely heard in themselves, producing instead often densely layered virtual jam sessions. A helpful diagram is enclosed (I love these guys: there’s a diagram) which, to take a typical example, indicates that the first track is the middle section of a duet improvisation, overlaid with samples from the other sections played ad lib on keyboards. This is itself then sampled and forms part of the next piece, along with a performance of Bach’s “Partita No 2” sampled from the third track.

Neither of the two is much of a keyboard player, but this hardly matters when they spend most of their time triggering samples. The album as a whole is structured like an elaborate knot, recursively sampling itself until it is impossible to tell “live” performances from electronic manipulations.

Because of its quick-change format, there are plenty of stand-out moments here, although the one which grabs you on first listen is probably Fell’s iconoclastic reading of a jazz standard, “Here’s that Rainy Day”, on distorted bass guitar, an instrument which he clearly knows his way around. This is a format which suits Wharf, too – he may be hit-and-miss when developing melodic lines over an extended solo, but he creates intelligent textural music, as evidenced on the outstanding second version of “Crammed with Distressing Brain”.

This record has a distinct whiff of Zorn about it, in the brevity of each piece, yes, but also in its use of such an unconventional compositional approach. Like Zorn, Fell is one of the most interesting and consistently successful composers working with improvisors today, and doing the composition after the improvisation is finished is a nice twist which works. He’s also a formidable bass player, and anything which he releases is always worth a look. This one happens to be exceptionally good. Richard Cochrane