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Barry Guy Blue Shroud Band in Krakow, Poland

John Sharpe By

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Krakow Jazz Autumn

The premier of The Blue Shroud represented the culmination of the annual autumn jazz extravaganza—Krakow Jazz Autumn—in the imposing Polish city. Now in its ninth year, the festival has become an established attraction in the jazz calendar. It's impossible to see all the acts on the bill without spending several months in residence as they come in clusters from late September through to late November. Famed for its vibrant avant jazz scene, the city attracts top notch draws from across the globe.

On the bill earlier in 2014 were reed titan Peter Brötzmann and Scandinavian supergroup The Thing in consort with the DKV Trio featuring saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Hamid Drake. Other enticing outfits included a group including saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Ab Baars, a solo concert from bassist Joëlle Léandre, Japanese/French quartet Kaze, containing Satoko Fujii and husband Natsuki Tamura, as well as a range of Polish ensembles.

Alchemia, where most of the action took place, nestles in the heart of Kazimierz, the hip former Jewish quarter of Krakow. Although unprepossessing from the outside, once through the double doors a welcoming vibe awaited. The dim lights of the bar masked the way to an intimate performance space in the cellar. Any number of famous sessions have been waxed here, most notably the Vandermark 5's 12 CD marathon of the same name (Not Two, 2005), but also Mats Gustafsson's Hidros 6 (Not Two, 2014) box set, and indeed two residencies by Guy's New Orchestra in 2010 (which resulted in the splendid Mad Dogs (Not Two, 2013)) and 2012 (begetting Mad Dogs On The Loose (Not Two, 2014)).

Small Group Formations

During the days leading up to the final concert, Guy rehearsed the band through his score, while in the evening they broke into smaller subdivisions to improvise freely. That plan not only provided a way to promote familiarity and let off steam after a long day's intense rehearsal, but also sowed the seed for some of the improvisatory passages in the longer work. That was the case particularly with the nightly solo spots for Dwyer's guitar, the saxophone quartet on the second evening, Niesemann's highly charged alto excursions, and the skirmish between piano and trumpet.

Each night there were three sets, each comprising up to three separate groupings. While everyone had links to the bassist, many of the participants had not worked together. So it was inevitable that there would be some first meetings among the small formations. Often these were some of the most potent of the short engagements. Guy's presence was also a surefire indicator of quality.

Individually, he stands as one of the world's preeminent improvisers on bass, having developed the quicksilver aesthetic first posited by Scott LaFaro to its logical extreme. In performance Guy simply has to be seen to be believed. His spurts of hyperactivity combined precise articulation, a plethora of extended approaches and seemingly inexhaustible stamina. He thrived on opposites and tension: between pizzicato and arco; between deep resonance and a nimble upper register; and between straight and idiosyncratic techniques.

While with one hand he might brandish a mallet to mine overtones from the strings both above and below the bridge, with the other he would simultaneously finger rapidly evolving pitches and chords. Then afterwards he might insert knitting needles between the strings to act as temporary bridges which modified the tuning and at the same time add a random metallic shimmer. His use of a volume pedal meant that even the most subtle effects, such as his ringing harmonics, could hold their own in dialogue. But whatever he did was informed by an acute musical sensibility. It was never just technique for its own sake.

Day One

While the overall standard of the sessions was astoundingly high, there were some sets that stood out even more than others. Unsurprisingly the most seasoned improvisers proved the most accomplished, but even the chamber specialists gave a strong account of themselves on less conventional turf. On the first night highlights included the opening solo set from Spanish pianist Agusti Fernandez, and his subsequent duet with trumpeter Evans, and the duos of Evans and Norwegian reedman Snekkestad, and Guy and Greek vocalist Yannatou.

Fernandez' first gesture was electrifying: swiping a wood block across the strings inside the piano to magic a wild gust of sound. It announced a panoply of percussiveness from which occasional plucked notes materialized as if by accident. Few other pianists can equal the Catalan's dexterity and resourcefulness in extracting maximum potential from his instrument. Amid the multiplying overtones, Fernandez drew out an almost vocal quality from the piano interior. As a very hushed groaning passage subsided, Evans joined the pianist.

With the bell of his trumpet over the mic, he created a resounding bass drone, which the pianist punctuated with shrill plucks from the piano interior. Purposeful interplay ensued, testament to prior collaboration, not only on disc with Mats Gustafsson, but also as a duo on tour. Fernandez paralleled the American's rapid fire exhortations with dense muscular runs. One wonderful moment of synchronicity saw both seemingly independently settle on a trilled phrase. Evans' speed of thought and reaction provides a severe test for anyone he shares the stage with, but Fernandez was equal to the task.

Likely the duo of Evans and Norwegian reedman Snekkestad will also surface on disc at some point, such was the success of their inaugural meeting. After exchanging growls and quiet susurrations, Snekkestad using a trumpet with a reed mouthpiece, the pair exuberantly braided squalling tones. Snekkestad sneaked his soprano into his mouth next to the reed trumpet to conjure lacerating exclamations, before focusing wholly on the straight horn. Seated next to each other, circular breathing through a brass lexicon, the twosome appeared every inch terrible twins.

Yannatou has featured in previous Guy projects, including "Time Passing" at the 2013 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, as well as in a pairing captured live on Attikos (Maya, 2010). On this occasion Yannatou constrained her wordless ululations, muffled stutters and introspective screams within a low level passion, which allowed full rein to Guy's exquisite filigree runs. Arco swoops interrupted flurries of pizzicato notes and slurs akin to Yannatou's vocal sighs. It was as if they conversed in an intimate discourse in an alien language complete with its own syntax, which was at times stirring, mournful and ethereal.


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