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Artist Profiles

Barry Guy: Ode to a Bassist

By Published: May 24, 2009
In addition to the LJCO and New Orchestra (a slightly smaller aggregate with Parker, first Crispell and then Fernandez, Mats Gustafsson
Mats Gustafsson
Mats Gustafsson
, Hans Koch, Johannes Bauer, Herb Robertson
Herb Robertson
Herb Robertson
, Per Ã Holmlander, Paul Lytton and Raymond Strid with albums in 2000 and 2004) and work in other ensembles, Guy is an accomplished solo performer and also has a duo project with Baroque violinist Maya Homburger. With the former, extended technique and instrument preparation plays a central role. Three albums since 1976's Statements V-XI for double bass and violone (Incus) find Guy drastically expanding the way the instrument can sound with percussive additions and virtuosic technique. What was once revolutionary has become accepted practice in the world of 'avant-garde' bass playing. Guy is somewhat ambivalent about this development. "I have always tried to integrate this language into the accepted lexicon of bass practice. ...extended techniques have to coexist in a sonorous and appropriate sound world rather than being add-ons for the visual effect. ...I have seen and heard a few dismal presentations of extended techniques. In the company of unsound basic instrumental technique I find them tiresome. Listeners new to the music have often been more aware of the apparent discrepancy between the use of extensions and the inability to build a coherent musical argument by more conventional means in the first place." Further clarifying his attitude, he says "The main thing I always try to adhere to, whether it's solo or trio or duo or big band, I try to make the bass sound sonorous, I like sonority. Whatever you do, whatever extended techniques you might introduce into the whole scenario, they have to be there for a reason. There's no point in making extended sounds for the sake of it. It's got to be part of the overall musical language."

The project with Homburger is quite different in Guy's milieu as well as that of most improvising musicians. The pair explore the repertoire of Baroque classical music, particularly the work of Heinrich Ignaz Biber, but contrast that with Guy's starkly modern compositions. "...We have modifications of the Baroque music format. When we're playing Biber, I play for the most part the continuo bass, I add where possible some chords according to the chord sequence but sometimes I add some pizzicatos which would be completely foreign sounds for Baroque music but it seemed to be appropriate for us as a duo to do that. And that's not to create a crossover music or anything, jazz up Biber, but it's to make different sonorities in a very basic format of violin and bass."

One of the newest and most unique projects with which Guy is involved is the Fernandez/Guy/Lopez Trio. The group has one album (Aurora, Maya, 2004-5) and will appear this month as part of the Catalan Days Festival (Fernandez and Lopez are both Spanish). The trio is an outgrowth of Fernandez' participation in the New Orchestra. "The Aurora trio came out of the new relationship which represented a very special moment for Ramon Lopez and myself since we are speedy guys in general, but Agustí was searching for a music that required less activity—like a Samuel Beckett script—paring everything down to the absolute minimal gesture. Naturally this was hard for us both, but we learnt so much from Agusti's working methods. He's a beautiful composer as well as a master pianist." Fernandez echoes these sentiments: "I didn't think about a bassist or a drummer for Aurora. I thought about Barry, Ramon and myself exploring some very specific musical material, this material being the confluence of three musical traditions: Spanish classical music, jazz and free improvisation. In this context Barry is the master of fluidity, strength and space."

As a bandleader, Guy is remarkably magnanimous. And despite being a virtuoso, his playing avoids egotism. His is a simple musical philosophy. "It's an integrated musical life, whether I'm playing the bass or I'm playing with my colleagues or I'm playing with myself. But the playing of the bass and the extensions of that playing or the type of playing, whether it's Baroque music or improvised or extended, it's all to do with the art of playing music with other people. That's the great leveler, you're dealing with people."

Recommended Listening:

Iskra 1903—Chapter One: 1970-1972 (Emanem, 1970-72)

Barry Guy & The London Jazz Composers Orchestra—Ode (Incus-Intakt, 1972)

Barry Guy—Fizzles (Maya, 1991)

Marilyn Crispell/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton—Odyssey (Intakt, 1999)

Barry Guy/Evan Parker—Studio/Live: Birds and Blades (Intakt, 2001)

Agusti Fernandez/Barry Guy/Ramón Lopez—Aurora (Maya, 2004-5)

Photo Credit

Danilo Codazzi

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