Scott Fields Ensemble: Mamet

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By Maurice Bottomley

This is as impenetrable as it gets. Or at least it ought to be, given the basic scenario. Scott Fields is an avant-garde guitarist, greatly influenced by the AACM in their most daunting and experimental phase. Not only that, but our man is something of a conceptual artist, the concept in this case being a series of improvisations inspired by David Mamet’s work. The gaps in language and the difficulties of communication are major themes for the playwright and Fields seems equally concerned with the failure, or at least the tenuous status, of dialogue. So what ensues is over an hour of stuttering, fragmented exchanges between electric guitar, bass and percussion. This is a rather different notion of the guitar trio to the ones you may be used to. Lonnie Mack or Wes Montgomery won’t help you much here, I’m afraid.

Actually it’s not as bad as you might expect. I don’t think it is really jazz, not that that matters—it is certainly free and improvisatory enough. I do think the more open-minded rock fan—someone who likes Beefheart or the more outré guitar work on Tom Waits’ albums—will get more out of this than the average jazz buff—even one of fairly advanced persuasion. It does not sound (thankfully) like the work of Derek Bailey, the only free-form guitarist with whom I have much familiarity. It is also far more assured and delicate than the abstract adventures of the likes of Larry Coryell in the late sixties. Fields has a fondness for linearity that Bailey shuns and a lack of interest in distorted, over-amplified noise—once deemed essential for boundary breaking guitar work . There is a marked absence of pyrotechnics about his playing. There is also something nicely subdued about his technique, although this occasionally manifests itself as him seeming only to have one string to his instrument—literally and metaphorically. A strong awareness of texture and the relationship between tempo and mood counterbalances this somewhat, as does a feeling for movement from A to B. These elements render the work more digestible than its disruptive premise would seem to encourage.

Other than that, it is hard to know what to say. The bass and percussion are good and all three amble along in an agreeably dissonant sort of way for an eternity. Little snatches of melody, the odd phrase and repetition leap out at you but it basically just lasts. The chief exception is “Oleanna” where the anger of the piece produces suitably angry guitar and drum noises. Brief sightings of the odd film score moment occur but pass quickly as Fields is suitably suspicious of anything so emotionally obvious. He claims a strong programmatic approach and the subject matter would seem to demand one but I could not follow this as closely as the sleevenotes suggest is necessary. This may be because of my unfamiliarity with all but two of the five transposed plays. In fact, had it not been for the promptings of the sleevenotes, the connection would have by-passed me completely. Obviously, I am losing something, but is it too much too ask the work to stand up without such detailed knowledge? I have forgotten, if I ever knew, the actual Pictures at an Exhibition but I enjoy Moussorgsky (and loathe Emerson, Lake and Palmer).

Perhaps it is just that it is impossible to take at one sitting. Of the five plays chosen (Prairie du Chien, American Buffalo, Edmond, The Woods and Oleanna), the compositions based on Prairie du Chien and The Woods—not those based on the plays I know—held my interest the longest. Yet listening to them singly added little to the experience. My main response was that as background music it was far too discordant but with undivided attention it managed, ironically, to be a little undramatic.

And yet I could not quite leave it alone. The lure of any enigma partly explains that, but I think that the structure and quality of the trio-sound itself has much to offer. Admittedly, enthusiasm came in fits and starts—a minute or so here and there—but the patterns set up by the trio can be fleetingly captivating. Each exploratory exchange has its particular identity and there are some very haunting passages. Unfortunately, I could not sustain that level of involvement for any length of time. It is not dissimilar to my relationship to conceptual or abstract art generally. One or two pieces will challenge and arrest but a whole gallery exhausts me.

So I think I have failed with this one. Something about the authority of the playing leads me to believe that it is my failure rather than the musicians’. In the end this is simply not for me. If you are taken with the more rarefied realms of modern art, you will enjoy greater chunks of this than I managed. As I have indicated, it is very well performed. Its subtlety is an advantage in the short term, if slightly enervating in the long run (and this is a long run). I recommend it to guitar fans who want to hear something different, although the feedback climax to “The Woods” was depressingly familiar, and to Mamet obsessives, who will have great fun matching notes to words. Fields has similar plans concerning Shepard and Pinter, so there is likely to be more of this in the pipeline. Good luck to him, it’s an interesting project. Me, I’m off to listen to some 12-bar blues.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/fieldscott-mamet/