Reviewed by François Couture for All Music Guide
Samuel is the follow-up to the Scott Fields Ensemble's 2007 release Beckett on the Clean Feed label. Both albums feature Scott Fields' compositions based on plays by Samuel Beckett. Not "inspired by," but "based on"; Fields derives his scores (pitches, chords, rhythms, etc.) from the author's words and narrative devices. At least, that is what the liner notes state. Clearly, Fields is not using these processes as the be-all and end-all of his music, which transcends such preparations. The listener hears little of that in the music itself and, if he or she chooses to bypass the liner notes, will not pick up on it. Fascinating as it may be, these processes don't get in the way of what turns out to be three highly complex compositions of avant-garde jazz, for lack of a better term. The composed aspect of the music is obvious, even though free improvisation plays a key part in the proceedings: unisons and stop-go cues abound, harmonic material is developed much too subtly and delicately to not have been planned ahead, heads pop up in unlikely places. We are somewhere between the large-scale compositions of U.K. bassist Simon H. Fell (mostly his Compilation series) and John Zorn's contemporary classical works. "Ghost Trio" has a slightly jazzier feel while "Eh Joe" is a bit more abstract at first, but all three pieces (the other one is titled "Not I") have one foot in free jazz, the other in non-idiomatic improvisation, and a third one (oh, it's unique enough to have grown a third foot) in a still little-charted territory of very serious non-classical modern composition -- akin to Fred Frith or Jean Derome's most ambitious works. Tenor saxophonist Matthias Schubert often assumes the lead melody, with Fields counterpointing on the electric guitar (his interventions sound random at first, but close listening quickly reveals an inner logic). Scott Roller shifts back and forth between a bassist's role and a soloist's role. Drummer John Hollenbeck is mostly playing in free improvisation mode, with short episodes of swing, and a noticeable rock-out passage toward the end of "Eh Joe" where he gets to use the kind of chops his Claudia Quintet is based on. Samuel is not an easy record, but the level of musicianship, composition, and ensemble playing commands respect, admiration, and an award. It is also quite addictive, as each listen reveals new details of the work's architecture.