Barry Guy New Orchestra


If it's jazz we are talking about, then the relationship between the individual and the ensemble - and also the related issue of the relationship between composition and improvisation - has a story as long as jazz itself. How far back one is willing to go could be just a practical matter: Duke Ellington? Count Basie? Fletcher Henderson? Then we have the well-known Ellingtonian dictum which says that to really write for musicians one has first to watch them playing poker. On paper, this is all familiar stuff; only on paper, though, as the interpretations of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton recorded by the trio Air for their album Air Lore (1979) made immediately apparent.

Ornette Coleman catching a flight to New York is often considered as the moment after which avant-garde jazz can never become part of the mainstream anymore. But we could also go back in time, to an orchestral line-up which could play both "the tradition" and the "avant-garde", and do both extremely well: Sun Ra's Arkestra; here, the vast re-release program by Evidence makes things very easy for the buyer - my personal suggestion as first step being The Magic City (1965). We could also discuss at length about Charles Mingus and his writing for medium-sized ensembles - it goes without saying that newcomers should start with The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (a work which once one would have assumed to be "common knowledge", but since it was recorded back in 1963...).

Money factors are obviously to be taken into consideration - hence, only oral history when it comes to the highly celebrated Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, and only late - and occasional - orchestral experiences for Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. The prevailing atmosphere in the "free jazz" days was not exactly conductive to a serious study of the written form, hence the highly suspicious viewing of the (American) Jazz Composer's Orchestra led by Michael Mantler, who in Communications (1968) wrote complex frameworks for Cecil Taylor's piano. The same attitude was reserved for people such as Anthony Braxton, whose (quite large, and extremely diverse) discography is maybe today the one presenting the largest number of works for ensemble - an area that Braxton himself had defined as Creative Orchestra Music.

The situation is quite complex in Europe, where original and interesting discographies were annihilated by the usual lack of interest. Chris McGregor's Brotherhood Of Breath are not mentioned very often (but why?); the surviving catalogue being quite slim, all that's available can be purchased with no risk. The German line-up called Globe Unity Orchestra, led by Alexander von Schlippenbach, on the albums titled Improvisations (1977) and Compositions (1979) had portrayed an interesting dichotomy; the same is true here: get whatever is available. Still somewhat active, somehow, is the Dutch Instant Composers Pool Orchestra led by Misha Mengelberg, an ensemble that for this writer is the perfect combination of (relative) accessibility of form and (relative) inscrutability of intent.

Released in 1972, and fortunately available on CD, Ode is the ambitious first chapter by the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra led by Barry Guy. An excellent bass player who's perfectly at ease in many situations, be it solo or orchestra, a musician who's highly fluent in many disparate idioms - from jazz to classical music, including baroque music and contemporary classical - Guy's goal was to create a compositional framework which could be of benefit to the players while at the same time profiting from the considerable skills they had gained during their improvisational practice. The most recent phase started with Polyhymnia (1987), which together with the Braxton pieces recorded one year later is featured on the CD called Zurich Concerts. The London Jazz Composers' Orchestra catalogue is not too large (it goes without saying that the difficulties for such a large and original line-up are not few), but it's of a very high quality, and not at all difficult to get. Selecting an album as their "best" is obviously not easy, but I have a personal weakness for Portraits (1994), where a highly developed structural organization and excellent contributions from the players go hand-in-hand with a certain accessibility for the listener.

I'm sorry to admit it, but it's true that somewhere along the line I started taking the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra (and its existence) for granted. I preferred to concentrate on Barry Guy's trios, first of all the one featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Paul Lytton; so far, this trio has released two albums: Odyssey (2002) and Ithaca (2004), both excellent. So I totally missed the news, four years ago, about the release of Inscape-Tableaux, the first recorded chapter by the Barry Guy New Orchestra. This new orchestra presented a reduced line-up (ten members, for obvious financial reasons) which featured some new faces, many of whom had already played with Guy: while Evan Parker and Paul Lytton where still here, there were also Swedish Mats Gustafsson and Raymond Strid, and Marilyn Crispell. It goes without saying that having one trombone where there had been three provides for big compositional challenges, and the same goes for having quite different personalities to blend.

Oort-Entropy features the same line-up from the previous CD, with one important exception: Agustí Fernández (whom I had already appreciated with Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble) replaces Crispell on piano (she's now quite reluctant to travel, it seems). In his fine liner notes, Greg Buium alerts us to the fact that on the long composition in three parts which is featured on the CD some themes which had appeared on Ithaca appear again. To start from my conclusion, I'd say that on the new CD Guy largely succeeds in creating a new entity that doesn't make one too nostalgic for the previous ensemble; but I'd also say that Oort-Entropy doesn't seem to attain the peaks reached by the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra.

It goes without saying that the instrumental voices have a lot of personality. Parker is as good as expected, and I also liked Fernández, who on piano is now lyrical, now highly percussive; Hans Koch, on bass clarinet; Johannes Bauer - I hadn't listened to him in a long time - on trombone; also nice trumpet and fluegelhorn by Herb Robertson, and tuba by Per Åke Holmlander; percussions (Lytton and Strid) are as good as expected. The first part is quite agitated, with a nice splice, almost Ellington-like, at 8' 32"; there's a nice episode for trombone and piano starting from 11' 25"; and a fantastic moment - "whispered, with harmonics" - for piano and double bass at 15' 32". I liked the second part - more meditative in tone - the best; it's all good with a very nice ending - again, double bass harmonics, played with arco. The third part presents Evan Parker on soprano in his usual fine circular breathing mode, and a nice piano arpeggio, along with tuba, bass clarinet, and percussion at about 8'.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | Nov. 2, 2005