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."

In addition to the LJCO and New Orchestra (a slightly smaller aggregate with Parker, first Crispell and then Fernandez, Mats Gustafsson, Hans Koch, Johannes Bauer, Herb Robertson, Per Ã...ke Holmlander, Paul Lytton and Raymond Strid with albums in 2000 and 2004) and work in other ensembles, Guy is an accomplished solo performer and also has a duo project with Baroque violinist Maya Homburger. With the former, extended technique and instrument preparation plays a central role. Three albums since 1976's Statements V-XI for double bass and violone (Incus) find Guy drastically expanding the way the instrument can sound with percussive additions and virtuosic technique. What was once revolutionary has become accepted practice in the world of 'avant-garde' bass playing. Guy is somewhat ambivalent about this development. "I have always tried to integrate this language into the accepted lexicon of bass practice. ...extended techniques have to coexist in a sonorous and appropriate sound world rather than being add-ons for the visual effect. ...I have seen and heard a few dismal presentations of extended techniques. In the company of unsound basic instrumental technique I find them tiresome. Listeners new to the music have often been more aware of the apparent discrepancy between the use of extensions and the inability to build a coherent musical argument by more conventional means in the first place." Further clarifying his attitude, he says "The main thing I always try to adhere to, whether it's solo or trio or duo or big band, I try to make the bass sound sonorous, I like sonority. Whatever you do, whatever extended techniques you might introduce into the whole scenario, they have to be there for a reason. There's no point in making extended sounds for the sake of it. It's got to be part of the overall musical language."

The project with Homburger is quite different in Guy's milieu as well as that of most improvising musicians. The pair explore the repertoire of Baroque classical music, particularly the work of Heinrich Ignaz Biber, but contrast that with Guy's starkly modern compositions. "...We have modifications of the Baroque music format. When we're playing Biber, I play for the most part the continuo bass, I add where possible some chords according to the chord sequence but sometimes I add some pizzicatos which would be completely foreign sounds for Baroque music but it seemed to be appropriate for us as a duo to do that. And that's not to create a crossover music or anything, jazz up Biber, but it's to make different sonorities in a very basic format of violin and bass."

One of the newest and most unique projects with which Guy is involved is the Fernandez/Guy/Lopez Trio. The group has one album (Aurora, Maya, 2004-5) and will appear this month as part of the Catalan Days Festival (Fernandez and Lopez are both Spanish). The trio is an outgrowth of Fernandez' participation in the New Orchestra. "The Aurora trio came out of the new relationship which represented a very special moment for Ramon Lopez and myself since we are speedy guys in general, but Agustí was searching for a music that required less activity—like a Samuel Beckett script—paring everything down to the absolute minimal gesture. Naturally this was hard for us both, but we learnt so much from Agusti's working methods. He's a beautiful composer as well as a master pianist." Fernandez echoes these sentiments: "I didn't think about a bassist or a drummer for Aurora. I thought about Barry, Ramon and myself exploring some very specific musical material, this material being the confluence of three musical traditions: Spanish classical music, jazz and free improvisation. In this context Barry is the master of fluidity, strength and space."

As a bandleader, Guy is remarkably magnanimous. And despite being a virtuoso, his playing avoids egotism. His is a simple musical philosophy. "It's an integrated musical life, whether I'm playing the bass or I'm playing with my colleagues or I'm playing with myself. But the playing of the bass and the extensions of that playing or the type of playing, whether it's Baroque music or improvised or extended, it's all to do with the art of playing music with other people. That's the great leveler, you're dealing with people."

Recommended Listening:

Iskra 1903—Chapter One: 1970-1972 (Emanem, 1970-72)

Barry Guy & The London Jazz Composers Orchestra—Ode (Incus-Intakt, 1972)

Barry Guy—Fizzles (Maya, 1991)

Marilyn Crispell/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton—Odyssey (Intakt, 1999)

Barry Guy/Evan Parker—Studio/Live: Birds and Blades (Intakt, 2001)

Agusti Fernandez/Barry Guy/Ramón Lopez—Aurora (Maya, 2004-5)

Photo Credit

Danilo Codazzi



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