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London Jazz Composers Orchestra 50 Year Anniversary

John Sharpe By

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London Jazz Composers Orchestra
Alchemia and Manggha Museum
Krakow, Poland
March 6-8, 2020

Intro

Fifty years and counting. One of the most important larger bands in European jazz, The London Jazz Composers Orchestra celebrated its golden anniversary over three days in Krakow which culminated in a triumphant performance of "Harmos." Long a staple of the LJCO repertoire, with its beautiful melody, it's one of leader Barry Guy's most approachable works. This rendition was powerful and moving, studded throughout with absolute dynamite individual contributions, and furnished a fitting conclusion to three fabulous days.

Since its inception the geographic locus of the Orchestra has broadened and its 17 members encompass seven assorted nationalities. Apart from Guy, who now lives in Switzerland, only trumpeter Henry Lowther, saxophonist Simon Picard, trombonist Alan Tomlinson and violinist Phil Wachsmann hail from the UK, but they are long time colleagues who have been on board since the 1980s. But even they weren't there at the beginning, when the 23-year old Guy first convened the ensemble for a BBC Radio recording in 1970. At that time the group included what became the doyen of British free improvisers, iconoclasts like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Trevor Watts, Tony Oxley, Kenny Wheeler and Howard Riley. Guy states that "the LJCO has always been a band of soloists," and that is no less true now than then.

Over the intervening half century Guy himself has chiseled out a unique position in creative music. Both an acclaimed composer and improviser, he personifies an unequalled meeting of the classical, contemporary, jazz and improv worlds, as well as being renowned as a sensitive interpreter of Baroque early music. He stands as one of the world's preeminent improvisers on bass with a style built on a foundation of hyperspeed responsiveness, a huge timbral palette derived from a plethora of extended approaches, and seemingly inexhaustible stamina. But he has also shown an enduring fascination with the conundrum of how to assimilate such unfettered activity into overarching frameworks for large ensembles, which has seen him found not only the LJCO, but other sizeable outfits such as the Barry Guy New Orchestra and The Blue Shroud Band.

Small Formations

As has become standard practice with the LJCO, the first two nights promoted subsets of the larger group, programmed so as to give a foretaste of all the diverse flavors, colors and predilections it contained. The first night took place down in the basement of Krakow's legendary Alchemia Club, nestling in the Kazimierz Jewish quarter of the city, while the second night, and the subsequent full orchestra concert, both occurred across the Wisla River to the acoustically superb Hall of the Manggha Museum.

Even a cursory summary of the highlights would prove exhausting and counterproductive, but some deserve special mention. The opening set of the whole event from a quintet of Guy, Frenchman BrunoChevillon on a second bass, German saxophonists Michael Niesemann alongside Picard and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli, set the bar very high. It was immediately apparent from the introduction that the twin basses would lend a tremendous depth and richness to the marvelously cohesive interaction. Once everybody was on board, as if by agreement they hit upon an elegiac mood to which they gravitated at intervals during the set.

Picard on tenor showed himself as a muscular considered player, who favored the middle and lower registers of his horn even when at his most rambunctious, in contrast to Niesemann whose legato patterns slipped between the notes and hit fiery high spots. The transitions were seamless as if they had been rehearsed. At one stage as Picard slowly emoted over Guy's bass and Niggli's drums, Chevillon picked out a phrase from Guy as the basis on which to rejoin and alter the course of the journey. After a cathartic bash, a memorable section developed when Chevillon blended kernels of cello-like purity with the saxophones, while Guy augmented with a sibilant fluttering and Niggli tapped and clattered, again adding complexity to the prevailing feel.

Guy's presence was a strong indicator both of quality, but also direction, as he showed on the second night when after a run of restrained acts he suggested that the next group should "give it some welly." No such invocation was needed for the threesome with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez and Norwegian reedman Torben Snekkestad, which already has a release under its belt in The Swiftest Traveler (Trost, 2020). They certainly lived up to that title here. Their music was one of headlong attacks and jangles before pauses leading up to the next volcanic spasm. On tenor Snekkestad capped protracted tones with filigree detail before subjecting them to sharp upticks in volume, but he could also be devastatingly subtle, as he revealed in a later solo set when he stripped back sustained pitches to uncover ever stronger underlying multiphonics, like taking the varnish off an old painting to expose the vibrant colors beneath.

Fernandez' magnificent rattlings evoked a cross between a harpsichord and a scrap metal merchant, while Guy reveled in explosions of extreme textures, whether from wobbling metal rods inserted between the strings or from using a serrated wooden stick as a bow. The whole output was very intense, skittish and mercurial, whether quiet or loud. At one point Snekkestad hit one of those fierce eyes clenched shut notes, and Guy straight away grabbed his bow to momentarily intertwine with the cry, before they all moved on constantly calibrating action and rejoinder. They transported the audience from hushed almost gentle passages to thunderous outbreaks, with nothing in between.

An enjoyable summit of two of the longer standing members signaled the reservoir of idiosyncratic talent within the LJCO. Tomlinson is striking enough with just the instrumental aspect of his trombone, but throw in his continuous litany of eccentric gestures, animated facial expressions and the exuberant flaunting of his slide, and you have a compelling focal point.

While Tomlinson was impish, violinist Wachsmann was professorial, giving as good as he got tonally, morphing from tiny jumping murmurs, to plucked twangs and rasping abrasions, avoiding consonance as well as rote response. When Tomlinson used his mute to produce guttural lows, Wachsmann opposed with whistling squeals. On one occasion Tomlinson discarded most of his instrument to blow solely with mouthpiece and slide, and then dispensed with it altogether to produce creditable sound with just his buzzing lips. After such high jinks, it was almost no surprise that the effervescent set ended counter-intuitively with a single understated plop.

Whenever Swiss reedman Jürg Wickihalder took to the bandstand he served to emphasize the J in the LJCO. On the first night, abetted by a quartet completed by Austrian trumpeter Martin Eberle, Chevillon and Niggli, the altoist began with a reiterated chant. Niggli's cymbals imparted immediate lift, as Eberle cushioned with drawn out fanfares and Chevillon hit his bass with a brush to supply a tolling undercurrent. Wickihalder's partiality for tune and rhythm was matched by Eberle, such that the intertwining trumpet and soprano saxophone invoked Ornette Coleman's classic quartet in its impromptu horn sparring. Even when the horns paused Chevillon and Niggli persisted, the drummer congealing scrapes, taps and a cantering pulse into lurching momentum, with Eberle's propulsive chuffing supplementing the throb.

When Chevillon sawed lingering resonances, Niggli instantly bowed a cymbal in sympathy, illustrating the close listening and search for form inherent within all the ensembles. Wickihalder embarked on a snake charming incantation, accentuated via a funky shuffle by Niggli. Something of a showman (he blared on soprano and alto simultaneously in a later set), Wickihalder then began rhythmically tooting on just his mouthpiece, while Chevillon braided airy strands between keeping the beat. The foursome's skill at moving between wailing free jazz and more abstract fare proved a big hit with the crowd.

The Final Night

The final night was scheduled in two parts. The first set comprised two charts "Flow 1" and "Flow 2" which formalized the small formations into a pre-ordained sequence of interlocking or overlapping subsets of the whole orchestra. Largely extemporized, these pieces gave concrete demonstration that choice of personnel lodges at the ground zero of composition. While at one level there was a marked distinction between the spontaneous give and take of the small formations and the unified intent of the full ensemble, at another it was simply a matter of the charts providing an enlarged architecture within which the subsidiary groupings could occur.

The entire band was assembled onstage as "Flow 1" kicked off in impressive fashion, with a crisp version of Guy's "The Return Of Ulysses" from Beyond (Intakt, 2017) which featured a trio completed by Wickihalder and Niggli. The hornman brought an irrepressible spirit to the number, alternately sweet, throaty and playful, and at times cueing support from bass and drums. Guy was similarly ebullient, almost walking at one stage, then scratchy and volatile, but still alert to detail, sublimely echoing a passing Wickihalder sigh with his bow, in yet another of those instants which affirm the communication between even the most disparate seeming sources.

Directly the piece ceased, Fernandez seized the baton, maintaining something of the character in a darkly resonant and accented solo full of fast intricate figures and expanding and contracting Cecil Taylor like cells, until joined by first Eberle's breathy trumpet in inspired duet, and then Lowther in a conversational exchange, at which juncture the pianist stopped. As the spotlight roved around the group, the range of styles and flair became almost overwhelming. A chuckling statement from American expat trumpeter Rich Laughlin prompted the entry of first Swiss tubaist Marc Unternährer's snorting harmonics, and then the three trombones, concluding in a hubbub of interweaving voices.

"Flow 2" continued in the same vein until all the colors embodied within the orchestra had been unveiled. The way the ensemble gradually inched from orchestral tutti into a repeated unison, as if on a sliding scale, was a marvelous and exciting way to finish. But regardless of the success of the first half of the performance, it was "Harmos" which served the main course. First recorded in 1989 on the Intakt imprint, the 40-minute plus work has become the LJCO's signature dish over the last two decades, its ongoing significance vouchsafed by its appearance on DVD Harmos Live At Schaffhausen (Intakt, 2012).

Harmos

An introductory orchestral crack gave way to a trombone tandem between Tomlinson and veteran German Konrad Bauer, the former the more declamatory, brandishing his slide every which way, the latter more considered, embellishing his lines with a multiphonic buzz. Jittery crashes and thorny improv lead directly into the first unfurling of the magisterial anthem-like theme. It was emblematic of the integration Guy seeks between the notated and the untethered that this first advent of the theme was behind the ongoing bickering chuntering twosome.

Wickihalder on alto emerged as the lead voice to give the tune a single focus over the arco basses and tuba grounding. Further supportive grandeur amassed around the theme as the saxophonist began to soliloquize, impassioned and entreating, to a bravura climax. The overall effect recalled some of the yearning splendor achieved by Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra in their finest moments.

It's easy to see why "Harmos" is such a favorite. With its transcendent melody, surely owing something to Guy's enthusiasm for the Baroque, the piece has even been characterized as the bassist's greatest hit, and the tune's emergence at the top and tail gave it an undeniable emotional heft. But it sits alongside other familiar and appealing forms, like the jaunty driving hoedown, which shifted through the gears with a series of changing time signatures, over which Picard's full-voiced jazzy tenor soared and tumbled. And later a lush Ellingtonian ballad in which Niesemann in full Johnny Hodges mode duetted with Fernández, initially expounding a tender love story, which latterly took a turbulent ride before going utterly wayward.

Interspersed between these set pieces were sudden orchestral interjections, dense rhythmic motifs, and solo and small group outbursts which gave everyone chance to shine. Guy's desire to reconcile the orchestral and the individual found its clearest articulation when Eberle's explosive muted trumpet shriek heralded the first of a succession of quickfire duets and solos which flared out of the orchestra between precise unisons, like a game of whack-a-mole whereby the orchestral mallet was always failing to extinguish the expressive spark which forever popped up anew in a different location. So great was the energy that it was hard to keep track of the stream of exhortations as each person threw themselves into their brief slots. It's a potent gambit which Guy has returned to more than once, also featuring on Theoria (Intakt, 1992) and The Blue Shroud (Intakt, 2016).

When Swiss trombonist Andreas Tschopp took over, his brassy split tone cries came forward into the gaps and prefigured a similar orchestral timbre, exemplifying how the soloists proceed in unremitting negotiation between unbridled declamation and staying true to the wider context. A frenzy of susurrating reeds ignited some free jazz pyrotechnics as Laughlin squeezed out liquid gobbets of sound under high pressure in mesmerizing duet with the eruptions of German baritone saxophonist Julius Gabriel, underpinned by roiling percussion.

After a flurry of ferocious group improv towards the end, Snekkestad on soprano started from the place where most saxophonists peak, in a dissonant fractured howl, which became a twisted anguished outpouring, accompanied by bass and drum turmoil. While Snekkestad's tour de force raged, the glorious anthemic theme resurfaced, asserting its full majesty as he gradually drifted back down to earth. At which point Wickihalder took over once more and waxed lyrical and passionate until the abrupt ending brought the whole shebang to a close. It was an incredibly stirring emotional experience which well merited the consequent prolonged standing ovation.

Outro

Not Two Records impresario Marek Winiarski supported Guy and wife Maya Homburger's efforts in enabling the proceedings and introduced the concerts each night. Everything was recorded and all being well should materialize on disc in due course. With the world engulfed by Coronavirus since the event, Guy's vision which advances ways of resolving the role of the individual within the collective perhaps assumes an even more wide reaching relevance.

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