Barry Guy: Ploughs into Swordshares (Part 1)

Duncan Heining By

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He describes those years as a "caldron of activity" to the extent that he wonders how he actually managed to write any music. "I did come across one diary entry," he says, "and it was one day that was free and it said, 'Leave for composition.' This was a short time slot for a slow composer! I was lucky I came out of the Guildhall pretty much to land on my feet into a very busy time of music-making, which suited me because I was enjoying every minute of it."

He did sessions with pop and rock musicians, like Elton John and the Rolling Stones—he is on the latter's "Angie." "It was not unusual to do a film session in the morning," Guy says, "a rehearsal in the afternoon with one of the orchestras and play with Howard Riley in the evening or do a recording session in the morning, shoot up north for a concert and return the next day for contemporary music rehearsals, followed by an evening of improvised music. This was my regular pattern in the seventies."

However, the crucial lesson that Guy learnt from this frenetic activity was that there were certain elements, which had reference across these different approaches, as he says,

"For instance, when I got involved in extended double bass techniques on the contemporary music side, I would find that some of these things that I had read about in a book or talked to players about, I'd already been doing within the context of the improvised areas. I suppose it was just a matter of defining what one was doing. The improvised music was pushing all of us into new areas of expression and new ways of communicating and to do that you had to extend your technique on the instrument to embrace all of these new ideas and sometimes I found there was a kind of cross-referencing."

Covering Barry Guy's musical involvements in adequate depth—even for the period 1966 to 1972/3—would be task enough. However, dealing with a career that encompasses two-hundred-and-fifteen recordings -as leader, composer and sideman—would require a book not just one article. Instead, in these three articles, we will concentrate on Guy's work as a composer for large ensemble with the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, with the smaller but no less magnificent Barry Guy New Orchestra and with his most recently established group, the Blue Shroud Band.

Once one immerses oneself in Guy's musical world, much big band jazz or large scale free improvisation (with notable exceptions) seems second-rate and superficial. If his music were a drug, it would be in great demand and banned in every country in the uncivilised world. Guy makes music that is about something, music that matters profoundly.

His latest work, The Blue Shroud, offers the perfect example of his multi-faceted approach to music and composition and, more importantly, to their realisation in the performance context. The piece simultaneously references Picasso's most famous painting Guernica, the horrific event that inspired it and its strange and ironic connection with U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell's speech at the United Nations to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Guy explains, "Three strands informed my writing of The Blue Shroud -the bombing in 1937 of the Basque city of Guernica by German Condor Legion pilots at the invitation of Franco, the painting by Pablo Picasso that arose following the event, and in more recent times (2003) a blue drape that was hung over a tapestry reproduction of the Guernica painting in the United Nations building before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his case for invading Iraq to TV viewers and the world in general. Incontestably, the Guernica image of death, panic and mayhem would have sent a far too literal message about the horrors of war to the receivers of Powell's statement. In an act of extreme cowardice, it was deemed necessary to sanitize the presentation, so the tapestry was covered with a blue drape by U.N. staff and media personnel prior to the broadcast."

The very idea that a musical work, certainly in a 'jazz' context, might encompass such goals and inspirations is not just bold. In many other hands, it would be foolhardy in the extreme. However, Guy was convinced that "a piece of music could be written reflecting the actualities of the subject matter, one that would indicate the power of the human spirit to withstand the oppression of tyrants." At the same time, he is clear that this is "not a tub-thumping anti-war piece." Rather, as its programme notes explain, "It is a composition that presents superb musicians in a creative scenario that reflects my humble belief that compassion is still a currency open to all, with the ultimate hope that humanity might at some stage learn from history."


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