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Barry Guy: A Prophet is Not without Honour (Part 2)


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Barry Guy has been the artistic director and main composer of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra throughout its now forty-five year history. Recordings and performances since Ode in 1972 have been sporadic but those forty-five years have resulted in eleven albums (including one with Anthony Braxton) and one DVD. In that time, the longest gaps in releases have been between Ode and Stringer (1972-1983) and between Double Trouble Two and Radio Rondo/Schaffhausen Concert (1995-2008) with the mid-eighties to mid-nineties being the band's most active period. The sheer costs, the size of the band -all individuals with their own careers and commitments—and the economic struggles facing jazz and free improvisation are sufficient reasons to explain the pattern of activity. Yet, the LJCO has always held in its ranks some of Europe and North America's finest jazz and improvising musicians. In fact, though inevitably membership has changed, most of the players can boast of several decades of service with saxophonists Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, bassists Barre Phillips and Guy himself there from the very beginning. And, of course, Howard Riley, Paul Lytton and the late Paul Rutherford have all been life-long members. One must also note here that the relationship Guy established with Intakt Records' and its boss Patrik Landolt has been a crucial factor in the orchestra's longevity.

Inevitably, certain records from the LCJO catalogue are absolutely essential -others merely necessary. There are arguably five that perhaps best illustrate the orchestra's forty-five year journey and Guy's progress as a composer for large improvising ensemble -Ode, Stringer, Harmos (1989), Portraits (1993) and Double Trouble Two (1995).

For Guy, Ode represents the orchestra's first phase and he suggests that the music that came after it, "became increasingly academic, which gradually alienated many musicians," adding that, "Our then-conductor, Buxton Orr, held the ship together against increasingly difficult odds." To a large extent this issue related to Guy's use of 'time-space notation,' an approach associated with Polish composers such as Penderecki and Lutosławski. The making of Ode had been fraught with difficulties -time-space notation being quite alien to some of the musicians, not all of whom were strong readers. Several of the players had worked hard to free themselves of conventional constraints on music-making and were unhappy with Guy's decision to use Buxton Orr as a conductor.

Despite these problems, Ode is a tribute to Guy and the musicians that played on it. Originally released on Incus, it brings together European collective improvisational practice and jazz in ways that even now astonish. And there is a great deal of jazz to be heard on Ode. Listen for example to Trevor Watts' alto solo in "Part VII" of the complete concert issued on Intakt, while trumpeter Harry Beckett is in masterful form later in the same section. One can certainly hear Messiaen, and perhaps also Penderecki and Xenakis as well, but the enormously important, central section of the composition, "Part III—Antistrophe I" calls upon the ghost of Ellington and Johnny Hodges in Mike Osborne's solo. The brass choruses in this section are astonishingly beautiful and lush before the band launch into some fine big band flourishes that presage events in "Part III—Coda." Guy's acknowledgement that he has learnt other ways of resolving the composition-improvisation dichotomy since 1972 in no way detract from the glory that is Ode.

Given his approach, rehearsals then and since clearly play a huge part in getting the music right. As Guy notes about Ode, "The musicians weren't always exactly sure what I was after. But through the process of rehearsal and of playing the music and talking, I managed to get everyone behind the piece. I was astonished how well people played what is a very difficult composition." Ode also illustrates three aspects of continuity in Guy's work; first, its marriage of forms and musical languages; secondly its use of small groupings or subsets of musicians within its overall architecture as a means of thematic development and elaboration and of dramatic contrast; and thirdly, that he is engaged in the creation of symphonic textures in his compositions. Yet this is not the sometimes shotgun marriage or marriage of convenience of so-called "third stream music.." Guy has even gone so far as to describe his approach as "anti-third stream."

"The idea that adding strings to a jazz score or trying to get straight players to phrase like jazz musicians was complete anathema," he explains. "Here, we have two different traditions in terms of ways of playing. I thought these were incompatible and you can hear the strain in those third stream pieces. When I said 'anti-third stream," I wanted to stress that I wasn't going down that road. But I realised as a composer I could harness improvisation but mould it in such a way that it can give the music a sound area that would be contemporary. I wanted to show the power and creativity of each improvising musician but as a group they could send a message that contemporary music can be something completely different. I like to use musicians who can deliver rhythmic improvisation but not necessarily tied to the old forms. I noticed in some of those third stream pieces that the form was as much to do with the building blocks of what people consider is jazz music—time, chord sequences, repetitions and so on. That has never been my bag."

As the LJCO moved into its second phase, it began to feature the compositions of members other than Guy. In this period, it performed works by Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford, Kenny Wheeler and Tony Oxley. Sadly, none of these performances have made it to LP or CD. In fact, the period following Ode up to the release on FMP Records of Stringer (Four Pieces for Orchestra) in 1983, is undocumented on record. For Guy, Stringer marks the beginning of the third phase of LJCO's existence.

With Ode, Guy created one of the greatest (and most precocious) large scale works in jazz and one of the few with the thematic content to justify its length. But he did so by almost forcing his musicians into the musical language of twentieth century composition that was outside their ken. With Stringer, there is a greater sense of relaxation in terms of the formal, structural aspects that Guy brought with him from his studies of twentieth century composition. It is enough that his musicians bring their knowledge of the languages of jazz and improvisation. Obviously, he still needs them to understand the sense of the whole composition but he trusts them to bring out those elements from twentieth century composition or the baroque era that are essential aspects of his artistic palette of colours and textures. This suggests that the intervening years between Ode and Stringer have seen a greater confidence, a greater sense of the possibilities of freedom for large ensembles and an (even) greater sense of trust in his musicians. Do not forget that with the first record Guy knew his musicians very well but knew them even better by the time of Stringer. As Duke Ellington once put it, a composer-band-leader should know how his guys play poker.

This points to a paradox in Guy's work. It is abstract on first impressions—impossibly so perhaps to some jazz fans—but once the listener discovers its internal organisation and grasps the whole, it rises through the mist like the most amazing skyscraper or gothic cathedral. It is as Guy once put it, speaking about 'abstract' music in general, "music with its own rhetoric, great emotions and a compelling power of persuasion." And the paradox is that Guy requires improvisers of the highest calibre to realise his architectural vision.

Inevitably there is continuity, not just between these two records, but between the Guy's methods and those of more mainstream classical or jazz composers. The use of contrast between the larger group and its force majeure and the smaller groups within the orchestral is a dynamic that occurs in the music of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans or just about every other jazz composer. In classical symphonies as well, the entire orchestra is not playing the whole time. The demands on brass players, in particular, would make this impossible. Such music would be relentlessly dull at worst and exhausting at best. Guy uses contrast between the whole and the parts in this way in all of his work. He uses solo cadenzas as a bridge between sections or movements. He alternates fast and slower passages. He uses the dynamic possibilities of diminuendo and crescendo and combines instruments to bring out new colours in the music. These are areas of continuity.

The differences between Guy's music and others in the wider of field of large ensemble jazz/free improvisation are, however, arguably more significant. One hears, for example, in "Part II" of Stringer Kenny Wheeler soloing against an orchestral background. Guy uses 'fills' from the orchestra to punctuate Wheeler's gorgeously lyrical solo. Yet, the nature and 'quality' of those fills is a long way from Ellington or Gil Evans. He uses a simple rising figure that is passed around the orchestra. It is not complex. It derives its musical qualities from how different combinations of instruments play that figure. The impression at times is of a lumbering dance of giants and the contrast between the elegance of Wheeler's playing is what gives the piece its special character. In "Part IV," the piece builds from a duet of the two percussionists, John Stevens and Tony Oxley, through a trio of Harry Beckett, Guy and Stevens, gradually bringing in other musicians leading first to a double trio of trombones and rhythm to a septet of three trombones, two basses and two drummers. The whole orchestra is brought in to play and a quartet of Trevor Watts, Howard Riley, Oxley and Stevens is heard within a massive symphonic outpouring of brass and woodwinds. Its ending from Watts plus percussion is abrupt and unresolved. This marks a crucial difference between Guy's work and others. His vision is less that of the big band and more that of the symphony orchestra. What one hears is a meeting of what one can best describe as predetermined form and emergent form.

Recorded in 1987, Polyhymnia emphasised the shift in Guy's writing that characterises its third, and so far, last phase. Its combining on CD, as The Zurich Concerts with a second set featuring the orchestra directed by Anthony Braxton performing a suite of his compositions, offers an opportunity to hear one of the most successful realisations of Braxton's work for large ensemble. Not that this was in any way, easy, as Guy points out,

"If ever there was a time that tensions were running high, it was then. People had got used to my stuff but his music to begin with looked and sounded very academic. I remember there was a sort of set-to between Tony Oxley and Braxton over a part with lots of black notes, changes of time and speeds and very complex rhythms. Tony was not getting close and at one point, said in his Yorkshire accent, 'Alright, I can't do it. So, you fooking do it.' So, Braxton took the part and sang it with the rhythms in place and that rather shut Tony up."

And he continues, "It was very much up to the individual musician to decode his intentions. Then somehow Braxton managed to get these elements to coexist as a coherent piece. I think some of my writing is difficult but Braxton's writing was very, very difficult for most of us but he pulled it together."

Polyhymnia (1987) brought in several of new recruits—trumpeter Jon Corbett and saxophonists Simon Picard, Paul Dunmall and Peter McPhail—which perhaps indicated a "jazzier" sound for the orchestra, albeit within the dialectic of tonality-atonality and structure-free-form. One even hears a "walking bass" at one point! In an interview from 2003 with Patrik Landolt, Guy commented that with Polyhymnia, "I had re-evaluated the relationship between the players and my own musical objectives. Other than freeing up the performance aspects, it indicated a return to a more pluralistic approach, taking greater note of the strength and differences of playing styles whilst structuring the composition in a more organic way."

Or to put it another way, Guy was now able to create music of the same moment and scale as that heard on Ode. However, now he realised that the musicians could be relied upon to realise his aspirations for each piece in performance, whilst he could create the form and architecture through his grasp of the languages of improvisation, jazz and twentieth century composition. The composition was revealed in the written music and realised through careful rehearsal and direction in the performance itself.

For a band so filled with fine, individualistic musicians—Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford, John Stevens, Peter Brötzmann and others—it would be easy to imagine all manner of tensions within its ranks. According to Guy, and others, with the exception of one musician (trombonist Radu Malfatti), such difficulties have been rare. "In general, everybody else has been happy to work together," he says. "What has been interesting is that all of the players have distinctive musical personalities. But because of this strength and because they were friends, in a way, they gave everything they had to the band, even though their music outside the LCJO would reveal something different again. It shows the adaptability, kindness and humility of these players."

Indeed, like all great composers, Guy's writing seems to bring out aspects of the musical personalities of his players, one might not have noticed before. There is one such example in the fourth section of Theoria (1991) where Trevor Watts duets with Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer. Watts is a fine improviser but there is a tenderness to his playing here that combines with the limpid melody lines of the piano that is quite lovely. In fact, Guy's capacity to respond to his musicians extends to a willingness to address their concerns. Listen, for example, to "Part V" of Portraits. The work, one of Guy's most beautiful compositions, represents a series of portraits of the musicians in the band. When it came to Simon Picard's feature, Guy responded to comments from the saxophonist that he was invariably featured playing "fast and furious." Here, Picard plays the ballad section and grasps the opportunity with great tenderness and affection.

Bearing in mind previous gaps in LJCO recordings, Harmos (1989), Double Trouble (1989) and Theoria followed in quick succession. With both Harmos and , Guy and the LJCO were able to record both pieces again and issue the former on DVD and the latter on CD.

Harmos is one of the LCJO's most lovely recordings. The word "Harmos" is an ancient Greek word, which the King James' Bible translates as "joining." That is, in many respects, its sense here as well. What is joined here are the, supposedly estranged, poles of freedom and melody. As Guy puts it, "The whole idea of the work is to formulate a structure through melody where the very 'sound' of the orchestra resonates and sings through a hymn of togetherness." The point, however, is also to transcend the "more obvious expectations of melodic composition," reaching beyond the creation of a series of lines for the musicians to use in their improvisations.

In some ways, the architecture of Harmos parallels that of Polyhymnia. A series of cadenzas, duos and trios are linked by orchestral passages of varying length. What makes Harmos so successful—and it is one of the LJCO's most accessible albums—is the way Guy's composition and his musicians create a cohesive work that draws extensively on the four different musical languages explored here -jazz, free improvisation, classical music and contemporary music. The pairings of musicians—for example, Watts and Henry Lowther, Radu Malfatti and Alan Tomlinson -used here are quite inspired.. The orchestral backgrounds shift subtly creating different moods with textures and colours that are quite sumptuous. At times, the sound is sad and mournful with a certain Spanish feel that presages the music on The Blue Shroud. Elsewhere, a beautiful series of baroque brass choruses lead into a dirge-like orchestral passage and later Guy splits the orchestra in two as two melody lines diverge and converge and the music moves fluidly between tonality and atonal free blowing. Despite shifts between musical languages, the musical never seems bitty—there are other excellent examples of this on Theoria, for example between sections 3 and 4—because Guy is somehow able to manage these transitions maintaining the balance between composition and improvisation. That, after all, defines the composer's art, as Guy suggests,

"All the players realise they are part of the whole project and play accordingly. It is interesting because I have occasionally wondered how some of these things sound so coherent when we have a very large piece comprising different musical aspects which I have tried to build into a whole. However, in the end, the argument seems to add up, even though people have expressed themselves in different ways. I think they become aware of the total structure as we build up through rehearsal. They follow the logic of the whole piece and their improvisations reflect the tensions and releases of the compositional procedures. They are very sensitive to these procedures and over the years have become more so."

On the whole, Guy retains the structure of each composition in subsequent performances. This is certainly true of the recordings of Harmos separated though they are by nineteen years and by the two recordings of Witch Gong Game II, one with the Canadian NOW Orchestra in 1994 and the other with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra in 2005. Double Trouble, however, was originally written for a WDR studio concert in Cologne in 1989 combining the firepower of the LJCO and Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra and to feature both Howard Riley and von Schlippenbach on pianos. What would one give for a recording of that performance? The LJCO recorded the piece in 1989 using just Howard Riley and rerecorded it in 1995 with the two pianos of Marilyn Crispell and Irene Schweizer and Pierre Favre, an additional guest on percussion, as Double Trouble Two. The two versions, both excellent, differ significantly and the fact that the two piano version is closer to the original intention is the reason for recommending this rather than the earlier record.

Double Trouble Two emphasises the original aim for the work as a double piano concerto, where the earlier version focuses Riley's contribution to the first twenty minutes. There are also specific differences. For example, Henry Lowther's beautifully weighted fluegelhorn cadenza introduction to "Part I" on the original version is replaced a piano cadenza on "DT2." Later, the trio of Parker (on tenor), Guy and Lytton in "Part III" on the first recording is swapped with a quartet with Parker (on soprano), Guy and Lytton and Crispell on the second, while Phil Wachsmann's contribution to "Part II" is more prominent on the 1989 version. Furthermore, the original was not recorded as a series of distinct movements and each section flows into the next without pause. Yet, it remains the same composition with the same beautifully managed transitions between the musical languages deployed, the same symphonic qualities and the same gorgeous cadences. In "Part II," one theme has rather a Spanish, Carla Bley-like aspect that is particularly lovely in this respect. This is reprised in both versions in "Part IV" but on the original with significant variation. In another respect, despite Riley's own abilities to fuse different jazz languages—from Harlem stride and Ellington to the wide, discordant intervals of free jazz—the twin pianos of Crispell and Schweizer do lend a greater dynamic contrast to the later record. On both, however, Guy uses the orchestral interpolations in a similar fashion to provide rhythmic, melodic and harmonic counterpoint to the foregrounded events, rather like a Greek chorus. Using our architectural metaphor, the house may look similar from outside but inside the layout and organisation of space is radically changed.

This discussion has taken us rather out of sequence. Our fifth LJCO album of choice, Portraits, came out two years before Double Trouble Two. In some ways, Portraits, a double album containing nearly two hours of music, harks back to the compositional scale of Ode. Portraits in certain respects is the LJCO's most obviously 'jazz' record, though fans whose listening is restricted to bop and hard bop might wish to question this, if ever they heard the record. This is partly because Guy draws primarily on the languages of big band jazz and free improvisation and even on "Part VI," the work's most abstract section, the slurs, growls and glissandi of the brass and woodwinds seem to owe more to New Orleans than Darmstadt. Portraits is in this sense both one of the orchestra's most 'accessible' releases and its most complex architecturally. Even with the helpful graphic score contained in the sleevenotes, how the different elements come together requires repeated listening to become clear. Essentially, the piece is built around seven long parts, offering 'portraits' of each of the horn players and of pianist Howard Riley, while each part is linked in turn by a series of six subsections. These offer 'portraits' of bassists Barre Phillips and Guy, violinist Phil Wachsmann and percussionist Paul Lytton. The subsections either presage or comment upon some aspect of the part which follows or refer back to a previous section. As to the parts themselves, these contain within them cameos from discrete groupings of musicians. For example, the Evan Parker Trio with Guy and Lytton features in "Part III," Iskra 1903 with trombonist Paul Rutherford, Wachsmann and Guy in "Part I" and a quintet of Simon Picard, Henry Lowther, Riley, Phillips and Lytton perform some fine post-bop jazz in "Part V." Guy even includes the tune "Playtime," which he wrote for the Howard Riley album The Day Will Come in "Part V" as a reference back to a key moment in his and Riley's careers. The structure may be complex but, once more, it is the way that Guy as composer manages the transitions between the elements that gives it coherence and makes it one of the most vibrant recordings by the LJCO. It is also one of their wittiest albums. For example, a wonderful carnivalesque theme shapes "Part III," while a 'poem' by Paul Rutherford is declaimed by the whole orchestra in "Part IV" to great effect and a richly harmonic Mulligan/Gil Evans' 'cool' backcloth frames Pete McPhail's gorgeously lyrical flute solo in "Part II." Even the 'difficult' "Part VI," which features the strange trombone sounds of Radu Malfatti, can be heard in that light as a kind of free improvisation, pastorale riposte to musical impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel.

Portraits was first performed in Chicago in 1992 on what appears to have been an 'interesting' tour of North America beset by the determination of the U.S. immigration service to ensure that foreign improvisers did not steal the jobs of their American counterparts. The CD release contains extremely helpful sleevenotes from American critic John Corbett. Corbett points out a key difference between Guy and the LJCO and Alex von Schlippenbach and the Globe Unity Orchestra. Noting the "inherent problem of featuring its disparate members," he notes that Globe Unity deals with this by what he calls the "pearls approach." He writes, "In this method, the band simply steps aside, threading each pearly player onto a string of solos." Though Guy has used this approach on occasion, Portraits "substitutes integrated portraits replete with stylistic references...for the traditional room-to-blow."

In a way, this sums up what I have been saying about Guy's compositional approach and explains why he is, arguably, the most significant jazz composer for big band to emerge since George Russell and Gil Evans. That judgement is echoed elegantly by the performances of his musicians, whether like Malfatti at the most abstract end of the improvisational continuum, like Henry Lowther as a representative of its most lyrical potential or by Paul Dunmall, who perhaps lies between these two positions. Guy seems able to frame their contributions perfectly and the players respond with some of their finest work. But the point is also made powerfully by the composition itself, never less so than in "Part VII," which acts as a powerful coda to the work as a whole. This final section, features Paul Dunmall on tenor in a quartet with Mark Charig, Barre Phillips and Paul Lytton with contrasting interjections from the orchestra playing against the quartet rhythmically, though not as often elsewhere tonally. Both elements are joined together ("Harmos" again) quite perfectly, almost like one of those famous battles of the big bands held during the forties at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom—on one stage, the Chick Webb Orchestra, on the other, Count Basie.

Though the LJCO has performed live since, its latest, but hopefully not its last, recording was in 2008 with Irene Schweizer on Radio Rondo, in what should be heard as a piano concerto. Its subsequent version with the Barry Guy New Orchestra from 2013 was a feature for the Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández. The voice of the LJCO, however, is not yet silent—despite the economic and logistical constraints that it faces. And to that mighty voice have been added those of the New Orchestra and now the Blue Shroud Band.

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