Scott Fields Ensemble – Becket (CF 069)
Think of music you associate with Samuel Beckett and you probably think something spare, lean, minimal, Morton Feldman being the most obvious point of reference. There was, after all, their (anti-?)operatic collaboration Neither, and two of the composer’s three last completed works were Beckett-related (Words and Music, and For Samuel Beckett). But despite several striking similarities – compare Feldman’s fondness for gently permutating cells and the internal repetitions and sonic play of Beckett’s late prose – there are appreciable differences, notably the size and scale of their final works. While Feldman stretched out in the last decade of his life, almost as if he’d foreseen the arrival of the 80-minute compact disc that would become the ideal medium for the spacious, thinly-painted canvases of his late compositions, Beckett’s works became ever more condensed, distilled. (You could, though, argue that the ultimate distillation of his work was 1969’s tiny playlet, Breath, which, devoid of both actors and dialogue, lasts just 35 seconds.. but there’s still some debate among Beckett scholars as to whether this was evidence of the author’s wry sense of humour, written as it was for Kenneth Tynan’s bawdy review Oh Calcutta!). Whatever, when you think Beckett you don’t automatically think of elegant and intricately crafted modern chamber jazz, but that’s precisely what guitarist Scott Fields offers us here on this magnificent quartet outing with John Hollenbeck (percussion), Scott Roller (cello) and Matthias Schubert (tenor saxophone).
There’s little direct correlation that I can find between the album’s five tracks and the Beckett works they take their titles from – Breath, Play, Come And Go, What Where and Rockaby (all plays as it turns out) – but dig a bit deeper and the similarities begin to appear. One of the reasons Beckett’s oeuvre has consistently fascinated musicians is its sheer musicality: a constant sense of play between micro and macro form, a concern for motive, idea, development, coupled with a wicked ear and subtle sense of humour. And that’s exactly what Fields is working with here. Sometimes the pieces are as ferociously determined as the monologue that propels The Unnamable to its unforgettable conclusion (“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”), sometimes they appear to slump into the ditch at the side of the road like Watt. Sometimes they’re as wild and effusive as Lucky’s celebrated stream-of-consciousness speech in Waiting for Godot, sometimes they’re as still as Still. Fields’ accompanying text, not surprisingly a little Beckettian itself, seems to be apologetic in tone (“All that improvisation. Anti-Beckett, if anything. I have a lot to answer for. Pray for me”) but there’s nothing to say sorry for. Beckett was apparently fond of Franz Schubert; I’d like to think he might dig Matthias too. The playing of all four musicians throughout is exemplary, the scores cunningly crafted and intriguing to the point of being frustrating (and if that isn’t Beckettian I don’t know what is) and the recording superb. What more could you ask for? A sequel, perhaps.