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Fred Frith and Arte Quartett: Still Urban / The Big Picture

Nic Jones By

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Alongside a career as an independently-minded improviser, guitarist Fred Frith has maintained a track record as a "formal" composer. Whilst these two roles might on the surface appear contradictory, Frith has over the years managed effortlessly to maintain them. Thus, the composed content on Still Urban and The Big Picture is for the Arte Quartett, on saxophones, augmented by Frith on guitar and, on the title track of The Big Picture, Katharina Weber on piano and Lucas Niggli on drums. The music runs the gamut of interpretation both composed and improvised, and the results yield their secrets only slowly.

Fred Frith and Arte Quartett
Still Urban

Despite the formal origins of the music, there are times when the line between composition and improvisation is blurred to the point of non-existence. But that doesn't detract from the essentially austere nature of the scoring for saxophones, or the degree of reverence with which those players tend to perform. The result, as offered on part three of "Still Urban," is music which is perhaps antithetical to much of what is understood to be "jazz," even while the edges of that formalism are somewhat frayed by Frith's input.

But the point is a moot one. The music here is often unassumingly beautiful, just as it is on part five of the same piece. As such it might be said to be an individual take on the notion of ambient music, in the manner in which it hangs in the air even while it complements the quiet of a spring morning in England. But that might be to damn it with faint praise, for it's abundantly clear that Frith is, in his unassuming way, intent on undermining such glib categorization.

Those of an iconoclastic frame of mind would no doubt thoroughly question such functionality anyway, but it has its place—especially when as a suite the nine parts of the overall composition hang together in such a convincing fashion. There is undoubtedly an individual sensibility at work here and the burst of urban noise which frames the opening of part seven serves the purpose of undermining the music's surface sheen. The same goes for Frith's guitar on part eight, though here the intention is more overt, its heart set on kicking over the statues.

Fred Frith and Arte Quartett
The Big Picture

In this case, "The Big Picture" is something profoundly other than a contemporary cliche. If "Still Urban" is about the outward manifestation of an inner calm ruffled by periodic disturbance, then "The Big Picture" is about balance sometimes only precariously struck. Weber's piano playing, for all of its galvanising qualities, still has about it the impression of a player striving too hard for effect. The deftness of her touch on part two shows she's capable of a lot more, whilst on the sixth and final part her perhaps studiedly stilted contribution gives the music a depth it wouldn't otherwise possess.

The saxophone quartet again shows itself eminently suited to Frith's music, although the brief timings of these six tracks allow for no expansion. This can be frustrating, as it is on part four, where the music offers an intimation of something greater and more tantalising, before it breaks with no great continuity to become something else also fleeting.

The same goes for "Freedom In Fragments" as a body of work, but at least the suite's title as good as makes this known beforehand. Again the quartet shows real aptitude for Frith's writing, but the brevity of each piece doesn't allow for much in the way of a lasting impression to register. This is not however to suggest that worthwhile music only emerges with time, but here something like part three—"Hopsotch (For John Zorn)"—hangs incongruously in the midst of the music that surrounds it and the notion of programming is severely undermined. Against the unassuming logic and enigmatic austerity of the rest of the music discussed here, the lasting impression is that of a sketchy work which in this reading is far from fully realised.

Tracks and Personnel

Still Urban

Tracks: Still Urban Parts 1 - 9.

Personnel: Fred Frith: electric guitar; Beat Hofstetter: soprano saxophone; Sascha Armbruster: alto saxophone; Andrea Formenti: tenor and sopranino saxophone; Beat Kappeler: baritone and alto saxophones.

The Big Picture

Tracks: The Big Picture Parts 1 - 6; Freedom In Fragments Parts 1 - 15.

Personnel: Fred Frith: electric guitar; Beat Hofstetter: soprano saxophone; Sascha Armbruster: alto saxophone; Andrea Formenti: tenor and sopranino saxophone; Beat Kappeler: baritone and alto saxophones; Katrina Weber: piano (1); Lucas Niggli: drums (1).



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