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Barry Guy: Striving For Absolute Spontaneity

Maxim Micheliov By

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Barry Guy seems to be one of the most convincing figures in a long line of contemporary innovators whose discoveries possess everlasting value. Being a diverse improviser, a bassist of exceptional technique, an accomplished composer and a big band leader, this artist amazes by the scope of his interests and his variety of his accomplishments.

Guy held a concert with Mats Gustafsson in Lithuania on January 11th, 2009. The short-but-eventful visit was crowned by the glorious performance at St. Kotryna Church. Guy played solo, in duo with Gustafsson, and in a sextet with Gustafsson and Lithuanian musicians Liudas Mockūnas (reeds), Skirmantas Sasnauskas (trombone), Eugenijus Kanevicius (bass) and Arkadij Gotesman (drums). The performance was released by the new label NoBusiness Records on a limited-edition LP, Sinners, Rather Than Saints.



All About Jazz: Barry, you are a rare example of a musician who feels equally at home in classical (baroque) and so called "new music." Is classical training useful or even essential for an improviser?

Barry Guy: Perhaps [I'm] an unusual case of being a musician equally at home in baroque, classical, contemporary and improvised musics. As such, I feel fortunate and I enjoy the disciplines that each offers, but of course this situation is not for everybody, and indeed not every musician has had a good fortune to receive such a rich musical education.

So your question concerning the usefulness of classical training for improvisers is somewhat speculative, in the sense that many musicians have thrilled us with their music without a classical foundation. In my case, I think it has helped because a sound technique has allowed the analytical and creative aspects to operate unhindered by technical restrictions. Having said that, none of us is foolproof, so there is always the mountain to climb. Expanding and refining one's language is the driver for continuity. Each of us has to find our own direction according to what we have been given or what we find.

AAJ: How would you describe your music in terms of style? Who do you consider your predecessors or greatest inspirations?

BG: Within creative music, I've never thought of "style" as such. My musical vocabulary is built upon my contacts with like-minded players and composers. I inhabit musical areas loosely known as free jazz, improvised music, new music—all inadequate terms to describe a vast variety of musical communication—and for me, the word "communication" represents the focus of my endeavors.

Inspiration has come from many quarters and this should not to be thought of as plagiarism. Inspiration for me implies lessons that open up channels of thought, and ultimately testing the hypothesis. Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Biber, Xenakis, Bartok, Shostakovich and Mingus are composers that have inspired me with their sonic architecture. And what an important last word that is—the structure of music, buildings, paintings and text all offer us ideas which challenge us to dig deep into ourselves.

Most bassists of my generation have huge respect for Gary Peacock and Scott LaFaro—two players that redefined what pizzicato was all about. But you know, we cannot play like them—they are unique. But what we learn are the possibilities that are open to us. We take on the idea of space, fluency, construction, but not the pitches—these are special to those people. I am inspired by Charles Mingus for his daring to break away from routine models and create passion in his music. Now my greatest inspiration comes from the musicians that I make music with—it's an ongoing love affair.



AAJ: Is there a fundamental difference when composing music for big orchestras, small groups and solo performance?

BG: Well, firstly and obviously, there are different degrees of scale in terms of the ensemble size. The art of composition assesses each situation and proposes a structure appropriate to the formation and, importantly, the players. The thorough composed input has to be balanced with the improvisational goals, so it is safe to say that the larger ensemble generally demands more organization, unless of course the group plays without composed elements, which is equally valid. My goal has always been to provide music that engages the players and allows the individual maximum freedom within the context of defined material.

AAJ: What are the basic principles behind an improvising orchestra (or the set of musicians/instruments)?

BG: As far as I am aware, there are no basic principles concerning the instrumentation—it is purely a matter for the organizer or the collective to decide who plays. My preference was for an orchestra that approximated existing or historical big bands, mainly because I had an interest in writing for a "Classical" well- tried format but changing the way in which the ensemble was used.

AAJ: How did you come up with an idea to put together a big orchestra? How was the London Jazz Composers Orchestra born?



BG: The LJCO was formed because of my desire to celebrate the picturesque musical life I was leading at the beginning of the '70s in England. I brought together lots of the musicians I had been working with across a fairly wide spectrum of improvised music. And, to make some sense of this powerhouse of creativity, I envisaged an extended composition that moved and flexed with the improvisers' aspirations. The extended composition was called "ODE," consisting of seven sections that would feature all of the musicians of the LJCO in one scenario or another. My composition professor at the Guildhall School of Music, Buxton Orr, conducted the first performance and continued to direct for about 10 years after that. The excitement of the final result filled me with energy and enthusiasm to embark upon other projects.

The realization of "ODE" was difficult and often contentious, with many musicians having to deal with time/space notation, plus improvising. The fact that we got a recording made me realize that the human spirit is indeed resilient.

AAJ: London Jazz Composers Orchestra—why "jazz" and why "composers"?

BG: You will recall that there existed the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the U.S. in the late '60s/'70s. Michael Mantler wrote some original scores, which interested me because my own writing method accorded with his presentation of the music—basically a time/space notation. In a rather naive way, I hoped that there would be a future collaboration between large ensembles, so I called my formation the London Jazz Composers Orchestra to honor the existence of the American counterpart. The name seemed appropriate because the orchestra was made up of jazz/improvising musicians, and composition represented the structural spine. Over the years of LJCO existence, the amount of composed material varied greatly, which was as I had hoped. No rules were laid down, although I guided the ensemble towards a format of composition and improvisation rather than a totally improvised format.
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