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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.

The feeling of Inscape—Tableaux is strongly that of European free jazz, albeit tempered by more formal orchestral writing that surfaces at certain points and there is less of an emphasis on the elements from contemporary music so frequently present in the LJCO's oeuvre. However, Guy's ability to juxtapose very different musical ideas is present as ever. With the BGNO, Guy continues to build the whole from smaller groupings within the band but the larger ensemble of the LJCO offered more opportunity to layer different elements or events on top of each other. Here, the emphasise is more on building scale from the juxtapositioning of individual contributions.

Inscape—Tableaux is divided into seven parts. "Part I" features the whole orchestra, at times playing behind one soloist but at others behind freely improvising duos or trios. The orchestral contributions vary from a tonal big band section to far looser interjections. "Part II" opens with a beautifully lyrical, if abstract piano cadenza from Crispell that leads into a duet with Parker matched by periodic dense tone clusters from the orchestra. The use of the orchestra in "Part III" seems to owe much to the more minimalistic textures that were pioneered by the Spontaneous Ensemble in the 1960s, while "Part IV" features primarily Crispell and Guy, solo and in duet. Guy's virtuosic solo leads into a simple, elegiac series of statements from the orchestra that echo again the baroque era. It sounds as natural as breathing. "Part V" might be a shock coming from another source, its frantic, stuttering entry maximises where "Part II" and "part IV" minimised the orchestra's resources. At his heart lie two solos one from Herb Robertson, the other from Johannes Bauer.

However, if the description so far makes the record seem fragmentary, "Part VI" and "Part VII" emphasise the sense of coherence and continuity. "Part VI" could easily stand alone with its mixing of free, abstract playing and highly melodic and romantic composed sections. The playing by Hans Koch on clarinet and Crispell is quite lovely. There is almost a hint of ragtime in the opening of "Part VII" with a series of brief interjections by different players before it develops and expands through a number of short, small group sections. Each of these is brief but in some way recapitulates what has occurred in the earlier sections of the work, not as repetition but more as a reimagining. It builds in volume and pace into a fine piece of free big band jazz, rich in diverse sounds and colours that ends dramatically.

The unique abilities of his musicians lie at the heart of what Guy is seeking to achieve. In a sense, they are the composition, as he explains with a nod to Duke Ellington's famous observation,

"I don't quite know their poker game but I do know what elements will set up a creative passage and I try to harness that in the writing. It's with me as a composer as I'm working away at my desk. When I start creating the architecture of a piece, the faces of the musicians themselves are orbiting the score, as I'm setting out potential pathways. I've been playing with Evan Parker so long now, I know just where to place him in a chart."

He refers to a quote from Renzo Piano, the famous architect, about the "technique of forgetting." For Guy, knowing his musicians is not about repeating the past or about comfort zones but about creating new possibilities for them, about knowing their essence and not just about appreciating their imaginative capacities and technical skills. "Even with the people I know very well, I have to forget what happened before and rediscover a new direction for each of them. But at the back of my unconscious is their sound, their face, their personality, as I try to write something fresh for each player." We mentioned Guy's use of graphic scores. In 1994, Guy was invited to compose for and perform with the Now Orchestra in Vancouver. The result was a piece called Witch Gong Game II/10, which was subsequently reprised with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra in 2005 and later released as the CD Falkirk (2006 FMR). The piece was the third in a series, drawing inspiration from the work of Scottish artist Alan Davie, who died in 2014. The first of these, Bird Gong Game was written for Davie, himself a keen musician and improviser. The second, Witch Gong Game was written for and recorded by the Rova Saxophone Quartet on the CD Bingo. Each piece in the series draws upon Davie's distinctive symbolism and the mythologies referenced in his paintings. Guy's stunningly beautiful graphic score incorporates certain of these symbols, notably the Egyptian Ankh representing 'life.'

Or as Guy describes it, "Musical modules hovering over a black void just about touching each other but each module looks as if it could descend into the black hole. I wanted to show this fragility on the score, as well as it being a practical score for playing. I wanted in that score to present something that was absolutely flexible and you can't do that on a lot of pages that you have to keep turning over."

Listening to the NOW and Glasgow Improvisers' Orchestra recordings in close proximity, the similarity of structure is most immediately striking. However, due to the very different instrumentation, timings and roles do not automatically correspond between the two performances. Internally, once more, they are again quite dissimilar. There is perhaps a greater emphasis on the collective on the GIO record, with more of a focus on individual instruments on the NOW version. Perhaps this reflects differing North American and European approaches to jazz and free improvisation. Certainly, one suspects that in respect of GIO, Guy has adapted the music to the orchestra's distinctive performance ethic. Both records contain key Barry Guy signatures. One hears at times the bird-like sounds that seem to echo certain compositions by Olivier Messiaen, the waves of brass, the bop into free jazz big band passages and the occasional almost pastoral section. Cadenzas and small groupings provide important building blocks between events and lead to noir-ish big band episodes or beautiful, pan-tonal orchestral segments. Most importantly both reflect the epic grandeur of Guy's symphonic approach to jazz composition. There is jazz aplenty in both and much else besides for those who care to listen. There is both control and freedom, as Guy seems to indicate, referring to the Now Orchestra recording,
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