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Barry Guy: Ode to a Bassist

Andrey Henkin By

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In 2007, just in time for bassist Barry Guy's 60th birthday, Intakt Records released Portrait, equal parts compilation, introduction, overview and mere glimpse into the musical world of this instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. There are tracks from several editions of Guy's colossal London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO), pieces done with longstanding collaborators like Evan Parker and more recent groups such as his New Orchestra or trio with pianist Jessie Lie burn and percussionist Ramon Lopez. In between are solo works demonstrating a remarkable vocabulary and facility to use that language to create eminently musical statements. And still, this album only paints a small part of the picture.

When asked if the album was designed as a retrospective, Guy responds conceptually, elucidating his approach: "The music I've been involved with has always been a developing music and I can only think of it as a future music not as past music. And all the wonderful encounters with musicians open up possibilities rather than close them down. It's not a reaffirmation of anything other than we want to do more. You never get to the point where you say it doesn't get any better than that."

Barry Guy was born in London Apr. 22nd, 1947. Like many other British improvisers he got his early experience in drummer John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) during the mid '60s. This was followed by work in pianist Howard Riley's trio and membership in the improvising collective Iskra 1903 with SME veterans trombonist Paul Rutherford and guitarist Derek Bailey. Guy's first major statement was 1972's Ode, a six-part (seven in the modern reissue) long-form composition inspired by Surrealist painters. It was the inaugural work for the LJCO, a group intermittently active until 1995 and featuring players like Parker, Rutherford, Riley, drummer Tony Oxley as well as guests like pianists Irene Schweizer and Marilyn Crispell. Ode was completed in 1970 and parts 1, 2 and 7 were recorded for the BBC that year. The complete live performance, originally documented on Incus Records and reissued by Intakt, took place at the English Bach Festival on Guy's 25th birthday.

The LJCO has often been considered together with other ensembles of similar size and scope but Guy's tangential inspiration is a different one. "I don't think specifically of the music that other [large improvising] groups do," Guy says. "I'm aware of what Globe Unity Orchestra does, I'm aware of Sun Ra, I'm aware of the Jazz Composers Orchestra. One of my big heroes was Charles Mingus and his big ensemble and I think in some ways it has nothing to do with Charles Mingus and in other ways it has lots to do with Charles Mingus in the sense that he utilized great players and those players characterized the music. ...But the big influence for me with Charles Mingus was the courage that he had to break with tradition in many ways. He was part of African-American tradition of regularly occurring chord sequences and time-playing but, on the other hand, he had the bigger vision to do the large project where time kept on changing, melodies were infiltrated through the whole piece. It wasn't just a conventional big band score that went from repetition of 16 bars with soloists on top. He had the courage to keep on changing the vista, the involvement of the players, the sizes of the ensembles."

Guy's large orchestra has never been a free- improvising one even if that approach figures prominently within the architecture. "In the big band situation, I enjoy so much the chance to write sonority, to structure things, that I've never found it compelling to say, 'okay guys, we do one set, we just play free.' But Guy, as an accomplished improviser himself, is acutely aware of balancing the needs of his music with the personalities of those playing it. "I have a huge respect for all the musicians. What I don't want to do is confine them to a cage or something like that," he explains. "I can develop the piece and confine people within an architecture and hopefully that architecture is loose enough to be able to get out and see things and transport yourself through different vistas and different orientations."

Marilyn Crispell, who has worked with Guy in groups both large and small since the early '90s, endorses Guy's methodology. "When I play with him, I feel completely comfortable—I can do whatever I want, and know he will understand it," she says. "...I deeply appreciate the respect he has for me and the other musicians he works with." Evan Parker, whose career has a similar reach and longevity states simply: "Barry Guy is an amazing musician, a phenomenal bassist and a good friend. It has been a privilege to have known and worked with him for more than 40 years and—to paraphrase Misha [Mengelberg] slightly—I look forward to the next 40 years."


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