Trumpeter Rory Simmons’ Fringe Magnetic, already a deeply unconventional jazz ensemble when they released the excellent Empty Spaces last year, appear to be veering even further away from any trends in the contemporary British jazz scene. Larger ensembles remain a relative rarity, perhaps because the many multi-tasking musicians on the scene are hard to convene in one place. With the use of strings and winds, Fringe Magnetic immediately stand out, with a whimsical but sophisticated sound.
Twistic is the perfect title for this peculiar but ambitious and engaging suite of music. It’s impossible to predict where Simmons’ teasing, individual compositions will travel. Simmons experiments with instrument combinations to create constantly shifting textures, and the overall feeling is of being transported to a fairytale world, albeit one where the creepiness and unease is amplified.
Norwegian vocalist Elisabeth Nygaard adds to this combination of wonder and menace, with her almost childlike phrasing, pitched somewhere between Bj�rk and Joanna Newsom. The most transparent threat comes from Andrew Plummer, who almost overpowers Fire In The Galley, a lurching quasi-sea shanty, with his throaty bellow, directly borrowed from the Tom Waits textbook. Amidst all this weirdness, Jamie Cullum, with whom Simmons has toured, feels like an oddly conservative presence. Yet this impression is at odds with his current position as a supporter of adventurous British jazz through his radio programme. His vocal contribution to Play It Once More is confident and refined, and he works surprisingly well with Nygaard.
Simmons’ musical world is intentionally fragmented. Those searching for obvious melodic themes may well be dissatisfied but open-minded listeners interested in real compositional possibilities will undoubtedly be thrilled. There is some flighty improvisation here (Simmons himself plays a majestic solo on Wait Drags On) but, for the most part, it is subsumed within the complex logic of Simmons’ compositional approach.
The thoughtful, subtle pianist Ivo Neame plays on three tracks but, for the most part, the absence of any chordal instrument is striking. Any implied harmony comes from Simmons’ arrangements. In this world, the counter melody is all important, and Simmons is brilliant at balancing lines against each other in a way that is constantly surprising and exciting. At one point during 10th Witness, scurrying woodwind, attacking strings and shimmering brass are all juxtaposed with a careful attention to detail.
Drummer and percussionist Ben Reynolds and bassist Jasper Hoiby (also of Phronesis and Kairos 4tet) do a sterling job in gluing it all together, the drums and percussion often adding as an additional textural device. There are plenty of adventurous and demanding rhythmic ideas here, in addition to Simmons’ skill with counterpoint. On Apochryful, the laptop ripple from Terje Evensen is incorporated in a remarkably sensitive and undemonstrative way – Evensen simply adding to the textural and melodic commentaries of the rhythm section.
With returning personnel and a similar approach, Twistic certainly feels like a companion piece to Empty Spaces. Yet it also feels like a definite development. There’s a strong sense that Simmons is becoming more ambitious with his writing and the results are both challenging and satisfying. The execution and expression of the whole ensemble is first rate, and the whole project manages to be direct without sacrificing any ambition or sophistication. Drawing from jazz, folk music and contemporary composition, this is a world where genre constraints are deemed unnecessary. Fringe Magnetic may be part of the wider Loop Collective, still one of the brightest and most exciting forces in UK jazz, but the project also has an identity all of its own.