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

Duncan Heining By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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."

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