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Monday, June 29, 2020

Simon H. Fell (1959-2020) - rest in peace

Simon H. Fell
photo © Christophe Pean 2010
By Stef Gijssels

Today, British bassist and composer, Simon H. Fell passed away at the age of 61. He was a prolific and versatile musician, a musical adventurer, composing in modern classical music and active in free improvisation. He also set up his own music label, "Bruce's Fingers" in 1983. He played in several ensembles, bands and orchestras over the years, with credits on no less than 285 albums according to Discogs.

His work for modern composition I am not familiar with, so it's hard to comment on this apart from leaving it to the reader's initiative to check them out. For him, both were equally important, and the intellectual play with form and structure in modern classical he considered a real need for him, next to the more immediate in-the-moment discovery and creation of new sonic expressions in free improvisation.

His legacy in that genre is quite impressive. He performed with Simon Rose and Mark Sanders in Badlands, with Carlos Zingaro, Marcio Mattos and Mark Sanders in ZFP and in SFQ, his own quartet with Alex Ward on reeds. He released several albums with IST, a string trio with Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell. He was also a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, and he played in numerous ad hoc ensembles with like-minded musicians.

His solo output is also worth mentioning: "Frank & Max" (2011) - which I'm listening to now - a brilliant and intimate homage to other contemporary bass players, "Le Bruit De La Musique" (2016) and even a solo album for bass guitar in his earlier years.

British free improvisation has its very specific sound and exploratory approaches, combining in the moment improvisation with great musical ideas and technical prowess. Simon H. Fell was one of its most important participants and theorists.

The last albums that were released with his participation were "Virtual Company", released earlier this year on Confront, and "Reconstructed Fragments", a duo recording with drummer Paul Hession.

He became a bass player by chance: "I became a double bass player through a situation which recurs time and time again in schools world-wide (probably). Our school orchestra needed a double bass; the school had a double bass, but no-one was playing it. I was studying music, but did not play an instrument, so it was decided that I should play the double bass, and that was that". We can thank that specific context for the great work and music that he left us.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

British saxophonist Alex Ward wrote the following piece on Facebook, and we want to share his personal reaction (with his permission):

"Hard for me to fully express the importance that Simon Fell had in my life as a friend, colleague, mentor and general inspiration. If I say that the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Simon's most distinctive qualities is "rigour", I mean that not in any drily academic sense but rather to suggest a total commitment to doing whatever was necessary to make things absolutely all that they could be - whether that was pushing himself past the limit of physical comfort in performance if the musical circumstances demanded, or gritting his teeth through the administrative slog and bureaucratic hoop-jumping necessary to ensure that all participants in even his most ambitious projects were treated and remunerated as well as he believed they deserved. This was all part and parcel of a level of intellectual honesty which is rare enough in itself, and even rarer when suffused as Simon's was with humour, generosity and joy - to spend an evening with Simon sharing real talk and good drink was to bathe in the energy that explodes from full engagement with ideas and the sweeping aside of the hypocrisy endemic to so much discourse.

The relationship between composition and improvisation in the UK still bears the marks of the antagonisms that accompanied the emergence of free improvisation as a distinct movement in the 1960s, and while no-one was more sensitive to these issues in all their complexity than Simon - his PHD thesis "A More Attractive Way Of Getting Things Done" is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in the subject - the aspect of his work which was concerned with the interpenetration of the two has perhaps not unrelatedly never really garnered the degree of respect or attention here that in my opinion it merited. It was my great honour and good fortune to be a member of Simon's ensembles for much of this work over the past 20 years, and suffice to say everything I have done subsequently in the field of composing for improvisers is directly indebted to what I was able to learn through these experiences.

I will miss Simon immensely, and the increasingly sporadic (due to our living in different countries) chances that we had to see or play with each other in recent years (the last time being nearly two and a half years ago) will seem even more precious and the length of the gaps between them even more depressing in retrospect. 

My thoughts are with every musician who will be feeling similarly bereft from his passing, but above all of course with his wife Jo. RIP."

British cellist, sound artist and Confront label manager, Mark Wastell wrote the following: 

"My Dearest Simon. 
Too soon and far too quickly. I blinked and you are gone. Leaving far too many loose ends and you would not have liked that. You were not a man who appreciated loose ends. Thorough and detailed, that was you. Today my heart aches. I am empty. Cold and numb. I can’t quite absorb the news. In the mid-1990s you took me under your wing. We met at a Hession/Wilkinson/Fell gig at Colchester Arts Centre. I told you I’d started improvising with the cello and you said that when I was ready I was to give you a call and we could do some playing together. Really? I couldn’t quite believe it. You were an established performer, I was a bedroom musician. I eventually made the call. Time after time you selflessly drove the 70 mile round trip from Haverhill in Suffolk to come and play with me. You took me out of the bedroom and into the public arena. My debut concert was a duo with you at the Club Room in Islington in January 1996. Our last concert together was also a duo, in March 2018, in part celebrating my 50th birthday. You dedicated a piece of music to me to me that evening, to mark the occasion. Our original duo quickly morphed into a trio with Rhodri, another unknown invitee that you had met in Huddersfield. The newly named IST made its first outing at Club Orange in April 1996. In the summer of that year, you invited both of us to join the Simon Fell 10tet for a concert at the Purcell Room as part of the Leo Records Festival. You had taken me from the bedroom, onto the London club scene and to the concert stage within months. You enabled me, trusted me, gave me confidence. In early 1997 you were offered a deal by Siwa Records from the States to make an album. Generously, you suggested IST. I was now a recording artist on an international label, all thanks to you. It was all so exciting. As well as improvising, you pushed us to play compositions. But I didn’t know a crochet from a quaver. No problem you said, we can work around that. And we did. I was nervous, out of my depth but you helped me to understand music in its written form - notated, graphic, instructional - and also encouraged me to put together my own pieces. Under your guidance, I was now a composer. We recorded these compositions for our second album Ghost Notes and arranged a UK tour. With you, I was now a proper touring musician. Your initiatives with Bruces Fingers were a direct influence on me forming my own record label. You appear on nine releases on Confront, five with IST, three alongside Derek Bailey and your own beautiful solo disc. In 2016, IST played at Confront’s 20th anniversary concert at the Hundred Years Gallery. That was the last time all three of us were together and what a happy day it was. Just a few short weeks ago, we were busy arranging a date for the 25th anniversary concert of IST in April of 2021. It breaks me in two to have to accept the fact that this will not happen. Never again will we make music together. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to kiss you goodbye. You were a dear friend, loyal and committed. I hope you know how much you mean to me. I shall never forget how deep our time together was and if you will allow, I make a lifelong dedication to you, to conduct myself in a way that would make you proud of the investment you made in me. 

Forever yours, Mark".


Colin Green said...

Another sad loss. Fell’s compositions, employing improvisational elements, are well worth exploring but for me some of his most inspirational work was with “Hession / Wilkinson / Fell”, a true free jazz power trio.

Richard said...

Oh, this is sad. I absolutely love "SFS – The Ragging of Time".

Captain Hate said...

I had no idea he was only 61. I agree that the trio with Hession and Wilkinson was free jazz at its most powerful, including the release with Joe Morris. Very sad to read this.


I never had the chance to meet Mr. Fell in person. Only some random, short, email exchanges about the excellent Bruce's Fingers-always a fan of the label. Even in these short discussions he was friendly and enjoyable.
I'm not the first to point out, of course, that among the great music he produced the Hession/Wilkinson/Fell trio was a ferocious attack on musical normality,a trio of great importance in the 90's when free jazz/free improvisation was back at their feet as "legitimate" radical musics.
I would add Badland as well as Ist in the above list.
He will surely be missed.

anon said...

I was very sad to hear the news. Simon was such a kind hearted and inspiring person. The enormous body of work that he leaves behind is testament to what a deeply creative person he was. My love to his partner Jo and all those close to Simon. x

Anonymous said...

I was really saddened to hear the news. For a short time I was a neighbour and remain a friend of Simon and Jo he was a wholly considerate man and aware of my limitations as a musician of the village quartet but he never criticised only encouraged. Never to be forgotten may he rest in peace.

Albert PIn said...

I can't believe That and I'm very, very sad.
Mr Fell was a true master and his travel through "comprovisation" incredibly rich and fascinating.
I discovered his music thanks to the review Improjazz 20 years ago, has become a Bruce's finger suscriber on bandcamp later, and I was always happy to discover his new works.
What a loss and how we will miss him !

Albert Pin

bventure said...

Just heard about this. No words for how sad I am, much too soon. Thanks for all the great music you left behind.

Unknown said...

I had the great honour of working with Simon on many, many projects since I met him in the mid 80's as a sound engineer. I will always remember being immediately impressed by his dedication and intellect for music and his awareness of the technologies involved in recording music and how we both utilised these to help his creations. The albums and projects are too numerous to list but most notable for me was the Composition 30 which involved 6 location recordings, 350 hours of creative editing, mixing and mastering and took 6 months to complete.Simon was always a true gentleman and was, very quietly, a generous, caring and honest soul. He had a huge influence on my own tastes in music and I'm so glad I was able to tell him this recently. It is no surprise to me that our last correspondences involved him settling up some old royalties he felt were owed to me. I was truly hurt and shocked when I heard the news and my thoughts are with Jo his wife. RIP Simon H. Fell

G.Mark Richardson said...

Sad to read this today. I had the good fortune to be friends with Simon circa 1977 all be it very briefly. A couple of years maybe. Hard to be sure after 40 years. We worked at Batley Variety Club together, mostly on stage lights although I have a recollection of the club resident band missing their bass guitarist and Simon filling in at short notice, like 20 minutes short notice. He was just a 17 year old kid and yet at that specific moment i realised what a talented musician he is. Shortly after the internet became accessible to the working man, perhaps 15 years later, i caught up with Simon again and we swapped a couple of stories. Sadly we lost touch just as quickly and that was the last time we had contact. Hope those left behind don't mind me sharing this short tale. I am so sorry for your loss however Simon will always remain in our collective memory x

Unknown said...

I played in a trio with Simon at Batley Grammar School in the 70s. Mostly dance music - Windmills of Your Mind was about as avant garde as we got. Remember playing a dance the same day as John H Stracey won the world championship so that would have been December '75. Simon was already blazing a trail even then. I remember watching him physically remove the frets from his bass and he was part of a free form group then called The Jellies with a trombonist called Victor Berry. They played an all dayer at a hall in Birkenshaw one Saturday. I hadn't been in touch with him since school so gratifying to see how far he took things but sad to see him pass away so young.

Unknown said...

I assume from the reference to our school and the year of his birth that this is the same Simon Fell I went to school with (literally walked to school every day from 1972 to 1975?). Memories include listening to King Crimson and Stockhausen in his bedroom, a love of Dali and Escher and a distrust of whatever we were fed by our elders and betters.
Lost touch as Simon went on to University but thought of him today listening to Rancid. Family may have sent him to Jazz respectability but to me he was a Punk. Sad day and sorry I didn't reconnect.