Barry Guy New Orchestra: Krakow, Poland, November 20-23, 2012

John Sharpe By

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Barry Guy New Orchestra
Krakow, Poland
November 20-23, 2012

Now in its seventh year, the annual autumn jazz extravaganza—Krakowska Jesien Jazzowa, in the beautiful Polish city of Krakow—has gone from strength to strength. It's impossible to see all the acts on the bill without spending several months in residence as they come in blocks from early October through to the start of December. Famed in recent years for its vibrant jazz scene, the festival attracts top notch acts from America, and Chicago in particular. On the bill earlier in 2012 were reed titan Peter Brötzmann, in consort with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, Scandinavian supergroup The Thing, the DKV Trio featuring saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Hamid Drake, and drummer Tim Daisy, among a host of other European acts including a solo concert from one of Poland's premier improvisers Mikolaj Trzaska.

Most of the events take place in the famed Alchemia club, nestling in the Kazimierz Jewish quarter of the city. Known as the venue for the Vandermark 5's 12 CD box set of the same name (Not Two, 2005), Alchemia provides an intimate space with clear acoustics in the basement of the café, accommodating an audience of some 100 souls. Proprietor of Not Two records, Marek Winiarski, acts as artistic director for the festival and was on hand to introduce each evening.

While a momentous event, this wasn't the first time that bassist Barry Guy = 7303's New Orchestra had taken up residence in Krakow, as it appeared there previously in November, 2010. Reprising that occasion, the orchestra broke down into small group sessions for the first three nights at Alchemia, while rehearsing during the day for the grand finale, a concert by the BGNO in the well-appointed auditorium of the nearby Manggha Museum on the concluding Friday night.

Guy stands as a singular figure in modern music, personifying an unequalled meeting of the classical, contemporary, jazz and improv worlds. Renowned as a sensitive interpreter of baroque early music (the Englishman appears on over 150 recordings, and has performed with all the specialist early music ensembles), that strand of his oeuvre remains relatively separate, though renditions of the works of seventeenth century composer H.I.F. Biber regularly feature on his recordings with his partner, violinist Maya Homburger, such as the marvelous Tales Of Enchantment (Intakt, 2012), alongside his own compositions. But the two strands for which he is best known are the high voltage improv, showcased to stunning effect in a long standing trio of compatriots saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Paul Lytton, and the large scale charts of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, seen in its last incarnation on Harmos Live At Schaffhausen (Intakt, 2012).

As one of the world's preeminent improvisers on bass, Guy was simply breathtaking to observe. His bursts of hyperactivity combined precise articulation, a plethora of extended approaches and seemingly inexhaustible stamina. While he might wield a mallet with one hand, to mine overtones from the strings both above and below the bridge, with the other he would simultaneously finger rapidly changing notes and chords. Any normal bassist would be content executing one or the other, rather than trying both.

As guitarist George Burt of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra comments, in the sleeve notes of its collaboration with the bassist on Schweben—Ay, but can ye? (Maya, 2012), there are several facets which combine to make Guy's orchestral work: the unity of the composed and improvised passages; the concern for the capabilities and strengths of individual players; and the way in which small groups are a part of the larger construct of his major pieces. All of those have been apparent through the development of first the LJCO and now the BGNO. While, at one level there, was a marked contrast between the spontaneous give-and-take of the first three nights and the whole ensemble pieces, at another it was simply a matter of the charts providing a framework within which the subsidiary groupings could intermingle. In Guy's words, the Alchemia sessions offered an opportunity to explore what a big band could be. And what a terrific range there was, veering from hushed exchanges of timbres via incendiary free jazz to out and out noise.

That first evening began with Spanish pianist Agusti Fernandez alone on the stage. For his opening gambit, he swiped at the strings, rasping across the wires, creating impossible glissandos and almost electronic slabs of sound. Over the four days, the Spaniard proved likely to spend as much time under the bonnet as on the keyboard—strumming, rubbing and tapping, but also incorporating his Cecil Taylor-inspired drive with muscular bustling lines, largely eschewing the brooding lyricism of say Aurora (Maya, 2008) and his recent El laberint de la memoria (Mbari, 2011). As he continued, he blended tremolos on the keys with abrasion on the strings for a percussive effect, until exploding solely along the keyboard, heavy on the bass in knotty kernels.

A high whine of indeterminate origin was revealed to emanate from the muted pocket trumpet of Herb Robertson, when he materialized from backstage. Fernandez fell silent leaving the trumpeter to squeeze out the merest of whinnies. His sudden clamorous blasts interrupted the busy litany squeals, slobbers, and blustering squall. As Robertson came to a conclusion, the sound of keypads popping presaged the appearance onstage of Parker. He launched thick intertwined tendrils of circular breathed exhortations on tenor saxophone, tonal fragments which consumed themselves in a tail-chasing round, as both the pianist and trumpeter sat quietly.

Parker reached a crest. Then as he became more pensive, that cued the pair to venture in, gradually initially, but then spinning tales of gathering complexity. Robertson was a master of timbres, aided by an array of mutes spread on a nearby table, but matched Parker for speed of response. Like two galloping thoroughbreds, the pair sped onwards, first one leading then the other, while Fernandez underpinned the madcap dash once more from the innards of his piano. Not without precedent—the trio has recorded Parallelisms (Ruby Flower Records, 2007)—the threesome provided an intriguingly capricious start to the four days.
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