Portrait Barry Guy: March 15-16

Andrey Henkin By

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Barry Guy
Zurich, Switzerland
March 15-16, 2007

How does a musician with a career approaching 40 years begin to attempt "summarizing it for a two-day festival? The answer, in the case of British bass innovator Barry Guy, is to not. Given the opportunity to present a "Portrait of himself, Guy, along with festival organizers Maya Homburger and Patrik Landolt, instead chose to reflect on the past by remaining squarely in the present, with a handful of current projects. These succeeded in revealing different facets of this amazing player and painting that broad portrait attendees might have been expecting. The performances reflected much of the music on the newly released, and in some ways accompanying, CD Portrait Barry Guy (Intakt, 2007).

The two-day event took place at Zurich's modern and inviting Moods nightclub. Guy has made Switzerland his home for some years but previous concerts he gave in the city were held in concert halls. Moving the proceedings to a club setting was more intimate but in some way perhaps stripped away some of the significance that Guy, as a player, leader and composer, deserved.

But that did not affect the music's impact or dilute its astonishing breadth. The first evening was a two group affair: Guy's duet with Homburger, who plays an array of Baroque violins and a recital of the most recent suite for Guy's New Orchestra, a group encompassing some of Europe's best improvisers. The duet performance was a lovely and accessible introduction to Guy's prodigious technique. A mixture of period pieces, mostly by composer H.I.F. Biber, and Guy originals, highlighted the sonorities that Guy attempts to bring to all his projects. The 'traditional pieces were exercises in stirring melody and counterpoint, Guy's instrument having a particularly vocal quality. The originals were very focused demonstrations of Guy's advanced techniques: bowing, percussion, preparations—in Guy's hand the bass becomes a truly three-dimensional instrument.

For the second portion of the evening, the New Orchestra—Agusti Fernandez, Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Hans Koch, Johannes Bauer, Herb Robertson, Per Åke Holmlander, Raymond Strid, Paul Lytton and Guy—performed "Oort Entropy , an expansive three-part piece. Guy has always structured his big bands differently than say the Globe Unity Orchestra, reveling in structures and textures in relief. Each section began with one of the reed players in duet with Guy and included long dreamy solo piano segments by Fernandez. In between different moments reflected the range displayed in the earlier bass/violin duet. There were moments of 'chaos' but also many others which were premeditated for maximum textural effect. Guy accomplished what every big band leader must: writing and leading music which allows a collection of supremely talented individuals sound like a unit while retaining the individuality that makes them appealing in the first place.

For the second evening, the focus shifted more to Guy the sensitive accompanist and Guy the improviser. A new trio with Fernandez and percussionist Ramon Lopez played a lengthy set of pieces from their new album Aurora (Maya). With Guy's facility, the format of piano trio became one of two lead melodic instruments supported by sparse, almost contradictory, rhythms. Though the intent was one of confluence, often the music shot off into three directions, moving through dense thickets into open fields. This group is less traditional jazz than it is chamber music, a twist akin to the bass/violin duet being less a recital than an exploration and the big band often working in smaller units. Before the most anticipated set of the two days, the Demenga Brothers, cellists both, played a brief set of three compositions, including one written for them by Guy.

Guy's extended techniques and ear for counterpoint were evident on his own piece as well as one Baroque reading and an original mini-suite. The final strokes of Guy's portrait were painted by his trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, a group that goes back to the early '80s but is based on relationships formed in the '60s. One of European improvisation's most formidable ensembles, it was a fitting end to the festival. For it is with this group that everything presented before—melody, texture, counterpoint, experimentation—appears all at once. Three improvisations, totaling a satisfying but short 40 minutes, were about absolute deep listening and the co-existence of bravado and subtlety. A focused maelstrom of sound that can be almost surgical, with quiet moments as intense as the louder ones. A powerful and detailed portrait indeed.


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