Driving back to Chicago for Christmas a decade or so ago, maybe less, David Sedaris, reading his story about taking French class in France, brought me to tears. Listening to David Sedaris read one of his stories is always better than reading one of his stories and if you do read one of his stories it’s best to imagine his voice reading the story. This particular story, in which Sedaris and his classmates in broken French and their teacher in pissed-off French compare assorted ludicrous holiday fables, was the final segment in that week’s This American Life, the radio program from Chicago’s WBEZ.
This particular story didn’t include background music. It was a live recording of one of Sedaris’ public readings and the show’s producers, or probably the top dog, Ira Glass, Philip Glass’s nephew, left those alone. But there was music under Ira Glass’s voice as he introduced the week’s theme and as he talked before each segment on that week’s theme and during most of the segments themselves. Whoever selects the sundry fragments of music for This American Life, let’s assume Ira Glass, it’s been said he has his fingers in everything, has a knack for material that is immediately engaging yet transparent enough to ignore when the talking starts.
Some friends of mine who have written music for This American Life have been disturbed by the show’s Cuisinart aesthetic. Doesn’t bother me though. Leonard Bernstein may have had a hissyfit when his precious, dreadful score for On the Waterfront was cut so that Brando could be heard muttering “yea.” Not me. This American Life has its thing and it can be my thing. Here’s the music; butcher it however you like.
The music on this recording is fresh even though for two years and running now the shows themselves have been scraps that the carpetbagger Ira Glass, who now expends his real energy striving for TV stardom, cobbles together from previously aired programs. In a transparent attempt to present old as new, each week he now provides new narration and music to bind scavenged segments.
That’s where this recording comes in. Each of the five pieces is written for a This American Life theme. Strange people live next door, for example, is in three acts. In act one a teenage girl keeps online diary that she fills with her speculations about other families in the neighborhood. In act two the neighbors are two countries whose residents have for centuries regarded each other with suspicion and distain. And in act three David Sedaris and his boyfriend Hugh become the strange neighbors when they move into their new condominium in Paris.
Dogs we thought we knew includes episodes about real dogs who turn on their masters, men whose are dogs, womanwise, aching feet (my dogs are killing me), and what happens when white teenagers appropriate black expressions. Yo, dawg.
These five pieces provide all of the music an hour-long This American Life show needs, with plenty of leftovers for hash and sandwiches. Each includes repeating motifs that carry through an entire show, variations in texture to match the moods of different segments, melodies for linking segments, subtle grooves that are substrates for narration, musical cues for drama, pathos, comedy, and pain. Although the fate of this music is almost certainly to be sliced, diced, mixed, and fried, it can, and was intended to, stand on its own, intact.
Scott Fields, Cologne, February 2008
Music for the radio program THIS AMERICAN LIFE
 16:18 Flatfooted flatbroke
 15:36 Can he make a W?
 13:31 Strange people live next door
 16:41 That and a dime…
 12:58 Dogs we thought we knew
total time 75:17
Scott Fields, electric guitar
Sebastian Gramss, contrabass
João Lobo, percussion
Scott Roller, cello
Scott Fields plays a custom CP Thornton Jazz Elite guitar
Recorded 20/ 21 January 2008, mixed 12 February 2008, at Topaz Studios, Cologne, Germany
Recording, mixing, and mastering engineer: Reinhard Kobialka
All compositions by Scott Fields
The bassist here, Sebastian Gramss, featured on Das Mollsche Gesetzºs
Catalogue Of Improvisation, which I reviewed in The Wire 303. DMGºs
improvisations follow two rules: no piece should last more than 60
seconds, and each should be followed by a pause of the same duration
as the music. In contrast, Scott Fields allows the musicians to
stretch out, and all five tracks last around a quarter-hour. With a
line-up like this (electric guitar, cello, bass, drums), the label
³chamber jazz² always hovers menacingly, but it is not particularly
helpful as shorthand. Fields and co produce thoughtful music, but not
unduly cerebral, dry or cautious < the improvisations are adventurous,
constantly engaging and often passionate. The last Fields album I
heard, Dénouement (Clean Feed) took more than a decade to get a proper
release. Fortunately, this very impressive session has taken only a
year to escape. Incidentally, This American Life is a Chicago Public
Radio show that its producers describe as ³movies for the radio,² and
if this CD is anything to go by, it must be addictive listening. <
I’ve always admired guitarist Scott Fields for his determined
originality as a player and composer-not to mention his immaculately
dry sense of humor, which makes his website one of the most fun self-
promo sites around. But admiration isn’t always love, and I’d be the
first to admit that his stuff can be tough going, though when it works
(as with the grinding rigor Of Beckett or the cool minimalism of
Christangelfox) it has the effect of immersing you in a sound-world
you never knew existed before. He’s not always been prolific, but
lately heºs been on a tear, with a good half-dozen releases in the
past two years; perhaps his 2003 move from the States to Cologne has
opened up new opportunities for realizing his various projects.
Music for the Radio Program “This American Life² was not, as far as I
can determine, actually broadcast on the Chicago-based radio show but
instead offers an audio parallel to its format and various segments
(at least in Fields’ fanciful imagination). If Drawings is
bewilderingly atomized, this disc is by contrast almost too leisurely,
its five tracks all roughly 15 minutes apiece. Brief, melancholy
phrases nudge softly at each other; looping back on themselves over
and over again; the pacing is meditative and lingering, taking its
pulse from the intertwining lines of the stringed instruments (in
addition to Fields’ guitar; thereºs cellist Scott Roller and bassist
Sebastian Gramss) rather than from drummer João Lobo. The CD requires,
again, a certain adjustment of expectation from the listener, a
willingness to follow the musicºs tenuous, fluctuating emotional arcs
across extremely long durations. Sure, there are climaxes on the last
two tracks, “That and a dimeS² and “Dogs we thought we knew,” which
have moments of real violence motion that they start to feel anything but climatic. Patience
definitely required, though the discºs nocturnal beauty draws you in
All told, this is extraordinary music that sounds like nothing else in
the avant-jazz world
J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
Scott Fields Ensemble
This American Life
NEOS Music 40806
Complete with the requisite word “American” in its title, Chicago-born Köln-based guitarist Scott Fields offers his vision of Americana on this CD, with themes ostensibly composed to be used by This American Life, a long-running radio program on Chicago’s WBEZ.
Before fearing that Fields has become a Bill Frisell doppelganger, wedded to country and folk-flavored tropes, his sardonic track explanations suggest otherwise. His comments about the show’s “carpetbagger” host scavenging music to be “sliced, diced, mixed, and fried” may prevent these themes from reaching their intended market. More to the point, each of the five tracks operates on multiple levels, with atonal and contrapuntal asides and extensions sneaking out from within the rolling, lyrical narratives.
Additionally, this American Life is played by two expatriate Yanks, one German and one Portuguese. In different combinations the other players have worked with Fields on earlier CDs. Texas-born cellist Scott Roller, who moved to Germany in 1984, usually works with New music ensembles such as Musikfabrik NRW, the Helios String Quartet and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern. German bassist Sebastian Gramss plays with saxophonist Frank Gratkowski and in the large James Choice Orchestra, while João Lobo, who is himself expatriated in Belgium, skillfully moves between playing jazz and Portuguese popular music.
Intricately connected throughout, most of the pieces evolve from Gramss’ brisk walking slaps and Lobo’s rhythmic rebounds, rolls and energetic drum head popping. Roller’s split tone excursions are so staccato and high-pitched that the resulting sounds often resemble those of a soprano saxophone as much as a string set. Meanwhile Fields plucks, twangs and pulses rarely push the tempo quicker than moderato.
Two instances of where this cohesion works are “Can He Make a W?” and “That and a Dime…” Taken languidly, the former depends on thick bass thumps and unforced drum drags as spidery guitar runs and cello portamento lead to cohesive trade-offs between the two string players. As the cellist’s tone becomes lighter, the piece climaxes with darker story-telling vamps from Fields.
In contrast “That and a Dime…” is heartier and heavier with stress provided by string drones. Then as Gramss gently and gradually modulates the underlying pulses, both the guitarist and cellist scrub and slap their strings to produce sharp, sweeping sul ponticello concordance. Later they divide, with Fields’ output feathery and delicate outlined against Roller’s glissandi. As these two unroll rubato pulses, the textures are complemented with walking connection from Gramss and Lobo’s clip-clopping shuffles. A final, speedier variation knits together Lobo’s pops, ruffs and drags, Fields’ buzzing runs and staccato pumps from the arco players.
Droll or not, snatches of these compositions may be unrecognizable if played between stories on This American Life – if that situation is actually possible. More fruitful for those who appreciate improvised music, would be to listen to this CD and the pieces in complete form.
— Ken Waxman
Diese CD erschien zwar schon im vergangenen Herbst. Da mir ³This
American Life² damals abhanden kam, sie hier im AMM-Forum aber
unbedingt besprochen werden sollte, denn sie ist wirklich erstaunlich,
im folgenden nun ein kleiner Text darüber. Der in Köln lebende US-
Gitarrist ist kein Unbekannter in der Improviser-Scene, nahm Scott
Fields doch beispielsweise mit den Protagonisten Hamid Drake, Gerry
Hemingway, Joseph Jarman, Myra Melford, Otomo Yoshihide oder Matt
Turner Musik auf. Sein neues Album, ca. Fields 32 Produktion, liefert
die Musik des in Chicago gesendeten Radioprogramms ³This American
Life.² Allerdings kein schlichter Hintergrund-Klangteppich ist hier zu
hören, sondern der ebenbürtige Partner neben David Sedaris, dem Autor
und Sprecher der Story (ist auf der CD nicht dabei!). In den fünf von
Fields komponierten Stücken gönnen sich der Gitarrist und seine drei
Kollegen Sebastian Gramss (Kontrabass), João Lobo (Perkussion) und
Scott Roller (Cello) alle Zeit und gelegentlich auch Ruhe der Welt.
Ohne jemals in abgehobener Coolness zu erstarren, spielen sie absolut
klar und intensiv ihr sensibles Free-Jazz-Ding. Konsequent und voller