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Barry Guy: Back to the Drawing-Board (Part 3)

Duncan Heining By

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

One of the things which may strike the listener on hearing the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra for the first time is just how much volume Guy is able to draw from just seventeen to twenty players. Some other big bands sound almost insipid in comparison. There is something about the way the composer is able to harness the power of his individual musicians and magnify it to something of symphonic orchestral scale—yet without losing subtlety, dynamics and texture.

The Barry Guy New Orchestra, which was founded in 2000 in Dublin is quite a different beast from the LJCO. With ten players, it is considerably smaller and perhaps the analogy of a large chamber ensemble as opposed to an orchestra is a helpful one here. Guy explains the reasoning behind its formation, "The BGNO has a slightly different agenda. Basically, I had to find a smaller band that we felt would be easier to manage on the road, economically. In practice, though it is smaller, the logistics of it are still horrendously difficult. It is an international band with members from so many different countries that there are even more worries about whether people will make a gig." At the same time, as with the Blue Shroud Band, small can be both beautiful and awesome in its own right. That a ten piece ensemble can sound this epic is simply astonishing.

So far, the BGNO has three albums to its name -Inscape—Tableaux (2000), Oort—Entropy (2004) and Amphi -Radio Rondo (2013). Where the size and number of players in the LJCO offered a great deal of scope in terms of coloration—if one trumpet was soloing , two were available to fill out the colours—with the smaller band, new approaches to scoring were needed. Its line-up is essentially three or four reeds, one each of trombone, trumpet and tuba, piano, bass, two percussion and, on Amphi -Radio Rondo Maya Homburger on violin. Guy says that it took him six months to rethink his methodology.

"I wanted to harness everything I had already learned about big band writing but find a way of putting it into a smaller ensemble, retaining the big sound of the LJCO. It was interesting because with the singular players, it meant that the whole sound of the band was big because they weren't having to blend with others in their sections. They were very much individuals who could really deliver huge sounds and who were brilliant improvisers."

The key issue for Guy was the need to refine the writing, so that when an individual was soloing or when a small group was featured the scoring created a full-sounding, consistent and coherent background behind the soloist or group. And this had to be more than just a series of charts or fills. He gives an example of this in relation to Amphi's orchestral background, which draws extensively on Guy's—and Homburger's—love of baroque music and the gorgeous but delicate sound of the baroque violin.

"When Maya was playing, I had to be very careful about the relationship of brass, saxophones and drums to the baroque violin, which could easily have been a complete disaster. But these guys are very accomplished and adjusted the big sound to something much more chamber music-like to give Maya the chance to realise the music I had written for her. It was more like a straight composition but utilising a lot of improvisation. I found that a very interesting lesson. I think as a result, I've refined the orchestration even more with the Blue Shroud band."

The sleeve for Inscape—Tableaux contains a photograph of part of the score for the piece. Containing standard notation, time-space notation and graphic elements it is a thing of beauty in itself. Staring into it, one imagines the infinite possibilities for creative expression and form that it presents to the musicians and their commitment to realising that potential. In the sleevenotes, Guy explains that the group itself is built upon long-standing musical relationships and friendships, There are the trios with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton and that with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and percussionist Raymond Strid and by the time the album was recorded in 2000, Guy had recorded twice in trios with pianist Marilyn Crispell, the band's first pianist. Trombonist Johannes Bauer had recorded and worked with the LJCO. That leaves American trumpeter Herb Robertson, Swiss saxophonist/clarinetist Hans Koch and Swedish tuba player Per Ake Holmlander, all of whom were known to Guy personally. The personnel remained pretty much the same for Oort—Entropy and Amphi—Radio Rondo but with Agusti Fernandez replacing Crispell on both and the addition of Swiss saxophonist Jürg Wickihalder on the latter.


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