Another Timbre

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at24         the middle distance


Chris Burn  piano

Simon H Fell  double bass

Philip Thomas  prepared piano


1.  Looking ahead, seeing nothing              12:19

2.  Not with the fire in me now                  13:12

3.  All moved                                             6:07

4.  Never knew such silence                        7:28

5.  Looking back, remembering little           12:58

                                                   TT:     52:56



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An excellent long review from The Wire of all of  the four discs comprising the Piano Series can be found here

A brief extract from that review is found below:


“The Middle Distance –  featuring Simon H Fell (bass), and pianists Chris Burn and Philip Thomas – draws on a bountiful reservoir of experimental histories.  Thomas is known for his performances of Cage and 'complexity' composers like Michael Finnissy; in 1993 Burn issued a disc of piano music by pioneering American composer Henry Cowell, although his interest in composed means has been overshadowed by his reputation as an improvisor.  Thomas, playing prepared piano, remains sonically distinst from Burn, but the music manages a noticeably unified soundworld.  Fell leaves conventional bass rhetoric far behind as the musicians consciously match up their timbres; at 2'55” on track four, their extended techniques flow into a microtonal patois that trashes instrumental allegiance.”                                             -  Philip Clark, The Wire


The Middle Distance, is by the trio of Chris Burn, Philip Thomas and Simon H Fell, and is a recent release on the Another Timbre label.  I really like the music here, as is often the case with Another Timbre releases.  I should state right now though, that if you are one of those people that likes to pigeonhole improvised music into categories and then subsequently does not like the one labelled “EFI” then I probably wouldn’t read on any further. Although the music on The Middle Distance is actually quite varied, and is always very subtle and delicately balanced it is occasionally quite busy and expressive. It should also be added that it is often also quite quiet and spacious, but as wonderfully crafted as it is it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, sadly.

So Fell plays double bass here, and Chris Burn and Philip Thomas each play piano, with Burn preparing his in advance, and so contributing a generally more percussive sound than Thomas, though neither plays it entirely straight. Thinking about it, although I have seen Thomas perform a number of times this might be the first instance I have heard of him improvising like this in a group formation. I may be wrong, but nothing springs immediately to mind. There are five tracks here then, each a concise piece in itself though its possible that all five were taken from one whole. From the start of the first track; Looking ahead, seeing nothing (an allusion to the uncertainty of improv?) the music is put together like some kind of finely crafted filigree sculpture, tense, full of anticipation and edgy precipices hanging over moments of silence. The interplay between the musicians is outstanding, there are three exceptional set of ears here, and the many years experience they share in the music is clear right from the outset. There is a chamber music feel to the recording, which is wonderfully captured in the resonant space that is the St Paul’s building at Huddersfield University. Everything is played entirely acoustically, and so we have the sound of a lot of strings here, struck, rubbed, bowed and hammered, combining wonderfully to create little sections of finely balanced sounds, some short some long, some tonal some percussive. It all just works so well. The second piece, a gradual, episodic thirteen minute study called Not with the fire in me now sounds almost composed, and given that all three musicians have worked with compositional structures quite often in the past maybe this isn’t such a crazy idea, but whether there is any preordained structure to the music or not it is clear that improvisation is at the heart of every one of the pieces here.

I love to hear piano played in improvised music like this, and Fell is such an able and versatile bassist that he finds a multitude of ways to wrap around the mix of scrapes and chimes from the pianists. The sense of shape and balance in the music is what really makes it for me. Nothing is overdone, bold statements are made when they are needed and there isn’t a fight to be heard. the musicians are working here to form a music together. This is just a great recording. It isn’t going to win any awards for innovation or have very many words written about it at online discussion boards, and it probably won’t sell out any time soon, but it is a wonderful fifty plus minutes of finely crafted improvisation that I have played a lot over recent weeks. The opening passage of the final Looking back, remembering little is just great, a thunderous blend of pummeling deep piano booms matched by a heavy metal approach to bowed bass, in places almost reminding me of a more abstract Hendrix workout. Just as the opening is so powerfully direct, so the sections that follow are elegantly gentle, so underlining the varied nature of the music.

I thoroughly recommend this album to anyone that enjoys improvised music of any kind. My favourite improv disc of the year so far.”

                                                                                                         -  Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear


“The Middle Distance has a cover shot of a barren snowscape which combines with its rather chilly track titles to give an initial impression of bleakness. The music within could easily have lived up to that impression. The two pianos, both prepared in some way, with Philip Thomas on the right channel and Chris Burn on the left, only occasionally produce conventional piano sounds. For much of the time the prepared piano sounds are in the upper register, sometimes having a metallic brittleness about them that could become wearing. The separation of the two pianists allows the listener to hear their contrasting contributions as they indulge in a fractured conversation, exchanging brief phrases or gestures.

The saving grace of the album, which gives the music warmth and humanity, and makes it required listening, is the placing of bassist Simon H. Fell dead centre between the pianos. Fell seems to act as mediator between the two—or as the glue that holds everything together. Either way, he does a fine job. Curiously, for an album that forms part of a piano series, it is the bass that repeatedly takes the limelight. Fell does not play the role of conventional bassist, instead being an equal participant always ready to move things forward when the need arises. Rather than the bass filling the space between the pianos, it often seems that the opposite is true, that the pianos are peripheral to the bass.

As the album progresses, it increasingly gels as a trio performance as the players seem to warm to the task. The closing track, "Looking back, remembering little," is its highlight, featuring some full bodied playing from Thomas offset by more restraint from Burn, with Fell holding things together. This is an intriguing album that stands up well to repeated listening.”

                                                                                                     - John Eyles, All About Jazz


“Given the focus of  these AnotherTimbre discs on piano exploration, it’s almost a surprise to encounter The Middle Distance  played by something like a band, a trio of Chris Burn on piano, Simon H. Fell on bass and Philip Thomas on prepared piano. What is particularly delightful is the way that the three interact. If two pianos usually suggest a degree of bombast, then Burn and Thomas are the antithesis of the typical. Each works with something resembling the meditative discretion of Tilbury or Lexer, a scattering of notes here, a sudden gesture to the interior there. Fell’s sense of line and pitch inflection make him an ideal (and equal) partner and the pianos are redefined in terms of timbral possibility rather than the usual density of harmony, line and event. The performance might serve as a model for the piano in small group free improvisation.”              

                                                                                                        -  Stuart Broomer, Point of Departure

Stuart Broomer reviewed the entire piano series, and you can read the full review here


“While all of these albums are musical, The Middle Distance is the most musicianly. Chris Burn plays directly on his piano’s strings, Philip Thomas modifies his; noted double bassist Simon Fell doesn’t touch a piano at all, although he’s done so elsewhere in his discography. The pianists each get one side of the stereo spectrum, but even if they didn’t it would not be hard to tell them apart. Although not totally allergic to touching the keys, Burn often uses the piano as a long stringed instrument, a harp or zither. Thomas’s modifications often turn his instrument into a percussion ensemble that happens to emit the odd key-strike. Fell wrenches cavernous groans and sprung wire sonorities from his bass. But more than the sounds, it’s how they find a fit together, break what they’ve found, and reassemble it that is the point. In other words, it’s all about interaction; you could, in the kindest and most appreciative way, call it good old-fashioned free improv.”                          -  Bill Meyer, Signal to Noise

You can read the full text of Bill Meyer’s review of the entire piano series here


“Not your parents’ piano duos, these prime slabs of first-class improv should banish any memories of the achievements of Albert Ammons & Pete Johnson, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington or even Jaki Byard & Howard Riley. Moving one step beyond the Jazz and Free Jazz of these earlier keyboard meetings, British pianists Chris Burn and Philip Thomas on The Middle Distance  utilize so many extended techniques and unique string-and-key variants in their joint narratives that at times the pure piano-ness of the instrument almost vanishes into abstraction. Additionally the polyphonic textures supplied by bassist Simon H. Fell become as much part of the interface with the pianos as they exist on their own.


Restrained, yet also enlivened by the stops, slaps and clinks from Philip Thomas’ prepared piano, the five instant compositions on The Middle Distance also draw on the participants’ experience in notated and improvised music. Bassist Simon Fell is equally at home at the head of large orchestral-oriented ensembles as playing in Free Jazz combos with drummer Paul Hession. Pianist Chris Burn also deals with compositions and free forms, although he’s probably best-known for the many ensembles in which he and saxophonist John Butcher have been involved. The youthful – under 40 at least – UK equivalent to Bourquenez, is Sheffield-based Thomas, a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, who is involved with the so-called classical experimental ensemble Apartment House as well as improvised sounds with saxophonist/bassoonist Mick Beck.


On this CD Fell is as much a musical collaborator as the two pianists – especially at those junctures where his pulsated pops, reverberating thumps and sul ponticello slices appear to mirror – or is it vice versa – the taut rubber-band like thwacks and knife-plucking-like scrapes from Thomas’ instrument. As those two vie to destabilize the sound field with angular pacing, Burn does his part with rubato patterns and voicing which emphasize the piano’s accepted versatility. At points he stomps out thick rumbles with the pedals; at others exposes swift kinetic runs from the keyboard; and at other junctures posits full-fledged arpeggios.


Should Fell advance the polyphonic themes with triple-stopping or scrubbed bow bouncing; or Thomas slap the objects resting on the prepared strings to create high-pitched harpsichord-like reverb or node extensions; Burn has an appropriate response. Rumbling low notes at one end of the keyboard, or simple clamorous textures from the other add a staccato urgency to simplistic “Chop Sticks”-like clinks. Overall, his sequences flow sympathetically and nestle harmonically among the others’ physical gestures.  More than piano duos, these five tracks offer notable group creations.”       Ken Waxman, JazzWord


“La tendance de la typographie britannique contemporaine est de privilégier l’usage des minuscules dans les titres d’œuvres littéraires ou musicales. La musique contemporaine actuelle vivante s’est elle-même débarassée du formalisme et d’une emphase d’un autre temps. looking ahead, seeing nothing et les quatre morceaux qui suivent forment the middle distance et mettent en scène une contrebasse et deux pianos . L’un « non préparé » via le canal gauche de la stéréo et l’autre « préparé » via le canal droit. Celui de gauche est joué par Chris Burn dans le piano et sur le clavier et celui de droite par Philip Thomas sur le clavier. La contrebasse de Simon H. Fell, un musicien installé en France depuis quelques années, s’inscrit au milieu de ces échanges avec beaucoup d’à propos. Cette musique retenue, concentrée et sans concession frise le chef d’œuvre, si cela est possible en musique improvisée. La démarche des trois artistes se rapproche de la musique contemporaine occidentale tout en conservant le goût de l’instant qui s’échappe inexorablement.


L’atout majeur de cette formation réside dans le degré profond d’intégration et de complémentarité des deux claviers l’un à l’autre comme si les deux pianistes jouaient d’un seul instrument. La subtilité avec laquelle le contrebassiste s’insère dans la construction de la musique le rend parfois « invisible » et pourtant c’est bien lui qui semble entraîner les deux pianistes vers l’aventure. Si aujourd’hui, le pianiste John Tilbury est devenu une référence incontournable, ce serait dommage que des collègues tels que Chris Burn et Philip Thomas restent dans l’ombre. Chris Burn fut longtemps l’alter ego de John Butcher et est un excellent interprète de Cage et d’Henry Cowell. Philip Thomas avait réalisé un superbe enregistrement solo, Comprovisation (.Bruce’s Fingers , le label de SH Fell). Il y interprétait / jouait des œuvres  de Paul Obermayer, John Cage, Michael Finissey et Mick Beck. Ces enregistrements de ces deux pianistes n’ont rien à envier à ceux du maître. the middle distance sera une belle découverte pour tous ceux qui apprécient John Tilbury. Celui-ci a définitivement réinventé le toucher du clavier du piano préparé et sa résonance dans le temps et l’espace comme a pu le faire en son temps un Paul Bley avec son légendaire opus ECM , Open, To Love. Ici Philip Thomas et Chris Burn recyclent l’expérience tilburyenne en la vivifiant à l’aune de la complexité. Si le duo d’AMM (Prévost – Tilbury) semble flotter magistralement dans une définition toute particulière du temps, étirant une action durant plus d’une demi-heure, nos trois compères abordent la matière de plusieurs hypothétiques concerts en développant les idées /canevas de leurs cinq « comprovisations » tout en synthétisant magistralement ces options dans des durées nettement plus courtes. Stase, répétition, variation, investigation, réponse, cycle, échappée, cadence, rebond, fragments qui se complètent, similitudes contradictoires, échos presque mimétiques, on peine à recenser toutes leurs figures de style. La réécoute de cette musique ne finit pas de revisiter ses innombrables détours et perspectives. Un vrai plaisir !”       Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg, Improjazz