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

Duncan Heining By

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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."
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