"We've got so many amazing players in this band we can present almost anything," Guy told me in the middle of the group's four-day whirlwind through town. "It's very hard to persuade a festival organizer to utilize the potential of the group. To say, 'Well, look: Other than the big band we actually have the [Evan] Parker Trio, we have the Guy /[Mats] Gustafsson trio. Or you can have the Marilyn Crispell Trio. And more.'"
But the Vancouver International Jazz Festival didn't need much convincing. Breaking off into a variety of duos, trios, and quartets, the orchestra blanketed the festival's first few days. In some respects, the BGNO (as Guy is given to calling it) simply recreated its first performances in Dublin last year. To debut the new group Guy set-up four days of music, plotting out a compelling network of groupings and daily rehearsals, culminating in the premiere of Inscape – Tableaux. For some of the players it was the first time they'd ever met.
"The process that took place in Dublin was actually quite important," Guy explained. "One thing I wanted to do was to acquaint us all, and the audience, with the voices in the band. Kind of lay the skeleton bare before we ever came around to playing the final piece. And it was a very interesting process not only for the audience but for ourselves because all the players always listened to everybody else. So we were informing ourselves of the way the players interacted in different groupings."
It was a masterstroke – and, for Barry Guy, something not unfamiliar. For nearly thirty years with the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) he's tackled the often problematic relationship between composition and improvisation, a lifetime trying to make improvised music work in large group settings. "Guy's LJCO recordings," Bill Shoemaker recently suggested, "comprise a Teflon-like argument for the legitimacy of the composer in improvised music, as his works are casebook studies in the integration of improvisation and predetermined materials and the empowerment of improvisers to substantively shape the work." Indeed, the BGNO fits snugly into this tradition. Built on the questions (and problems) posed in the LJCO, Barry Guy's New Orchestra was born out of its predecessor's unwieldy economics.
"The genesis of the new group, I suppose, came out of the fact, the horrible reality, that getting work for the London Jazz Composers Orchestra was actually getting more and more difficult," Guy recalled. "The LJCO was always a large animal to deal with, to keep it moving. There was no such thing as funding. We funded it basically by selling instruments over the years. I suppose I can put my Baroque music days as the progenitor of the LJCO."
After the LJCO's last concert at the 1998 Berlin Jazz Festival (with Marilyn Crispell and Maggie Nicols as guests) – "a remarkable evening," Guy recalls, "because the band was on absolutely top form" – the prospects looked bleak. "The months passed after Berlin, we tried to get some more work, and basically the information coming back to us was that nobody has any money for big bands, unless you have government support. Patrik Landolt from Intakt wanted to do another album and he said, 'Look, why don't you think of a smaller band.' Which to me was the unthinkable because in a way that's my baby, the LJCO, with the size of it – the orchestration, the understanding how I could write for it. A ten-piece band seemed a proposition that was untenable. However, it was suggested as a financially easier option."
Landolt persisted. "He said, 'Why don't you just give a thought to who you'd want in the band.' That was the difficult thing because I had all the guys that were in the LJCO who'd I'd worked with for years. But I decided to just let that be, to push that to one side and find the reasons for putting a ten-piece band together – and who to get into it. It seemed to me that the best way of doing this was to almost get back to the first principles that I had with the LJCO: to gather around under this umbrella a group of players that I had recently been working with in small groups, in duos, trios. And also players that had played with each other in various groupings over the years.
"So the Parker Trio was the obvious starting point because I love working with Evan and I love working with Paul [Lytton]. And of course then there was the Swedish trio with Mats Gustafsson and [drummer] Raymond Strid. So there were two, for me, very interesting trios: one younger one, and the other established but dealing with trio music in a completely different way. I thought that would be quite an interesting focus, and axis point. And then I had been working with Marilyn in trio formations, either with Gerry Hemingway or Paul Lytton, so it would seem to be a necessity to get Marilyn in. And I was wanting to write some things for Marilyn anyway – some ballads, slower things – since she was interested in that area. And she had also made records with the Parker Trio and the Gustafsson Trio.
"I wanted a band that was reasonably international, which reflected my experiences over a period of years. I had done some excellent duos with Hans Koch and wanted a bass and contrabass clarinet sound in this ensemble because I realized that once you're coming down from the seventeen-piece to a ten-piece, coloration is quite important, absolutely vital to this orchestration.
"But I wanted to keep a strong brass section. [Trumpeter] Herb Robertson had played with the LJCO in America and Berlin. He came in and I thought he was an excellent player, kind of revitalized the brass section in a way. And he had made an album with Paul Lytton, so there was that connection. Then [trombonist] Johannes Bauer. I'd done quite a lot of duos with him in Germany, on and off. We kept on meeting. And I thought he had a very positive attitude to improvising and reading music. He's a very good reader, strong sound, and also a really nice guy, as well. I was also interested in the chemistry of the group. What I didn't want was a lot of superstars in the ensemble who would just get on each other's nerves. So I tried to find this arcane balance: to get not only the music to work but the people to work with each other, as well."
And tuba: Per Åke Holmlander, a Swedish player that played in Mats's big band. He was such a good player, very powerful, good improviser, really nice guy, knew the Swedes well, of course. So that was the Viking Trio, in a way (with Raymond Strid on drums), a very special dimension.
"The other thing was, I had to devise music in which I could play bass instead of conducting all the time. You see, I do some conducting in this piece but also I had to imagine a piece in which I could actually step back and let the direction of several parts of it take place within the band itself. So I had to have people who had good initiative. Mats had directed his own orchestra so there was already a fellow traveler. If I needed somebody else to go, 'OK, guys, mobilize here,' he could be relied upon to do that."
Having, as Guy characterized it, "accepted the ultimatum that this was going to be a reality," he began to write – or to at least think about writing. "For quite a while I didn't necessarily do anything on the piece," he recalls. "But there were moments, when I was walking somewhere or sitting at the drawing board working on something else, I would suddenly visualize the BGNO and how it could come together, just sound-wise, as an ensemble. There was a period of gestation: I was having to adjust to the possibilities, the sonic expectations, compared with the LJCO. But there came a point where new things started to stir, reducing the larger orchestra down to a compact aural scenario in my head, but at the same time I was realizing that because they're singular instruments a new sonority started emerging in a very subtle and nonspecific way. An idea was forming itself in my head about clarity and sharply defined gestures. For instance, 'OK, there is one trombone. But that one trombone is powerful and it can actually have a very important and decisive effect within an ensemble.' Whereas the three trombones in the LJCO were used in a strategically different way.
"It was a slow and not very scientific way of forming the sounds of the band. But as these things were happening I found myself more and more making marks on paper, like an artist with a paintbrush. Even before this all started coming into place I'd just get excited by the imagination of a particular instrumental grouping, or one player playing against a construct. And I would just make a mark, or a series of marks, not actually writing notes even. Just a very soft pencil, just digging the paper in a way. It's almost like cavemen making marks on rocks, just images to remind you exactly what you want to do. But in the context of the other things that might have been accumulating, they made sense: something to do with a density of sound, or tailing off to a lightness. I would even change pencil thicknesses sometimes to give a sense of density change."
While a number of the drawings were eventually discarded, specific ideas began to emerge. "As I went through this process they started shaking themselves out into numbers, if you like. This is where the aural imagination, which had been just thinking of grouping, started to enter the drawing facility. I would just put 'Marilyn,' or something like that, at the end of a sequence of lines. That would indicate to me a certain type of activity ending in Marilyn, or, for instance, a specific logical meeting point of certain instruments to support this moment.
"In the early part of Inscape – Tableaux I wanted the exposition to present the two powerhouse trios of Parker and Gustafsson. Before that, however, I wished to present the brass players in short vignettes that would gradually accumulate in energy to the point where they would come together and comment on the progress of the trios as they made their way to a sonically elevated level.
"Then there was this memory of hearing Marilyn and Evan doing a circular stream of activity, and that was the first release point, where the focus changes: from the grand to the specific. And then through that process, and a little short ballad section, we actually pick up pretty much where we left off with the whole band, with the background thing coming to the foreground picking up everybody on the way. This rounds off the first section.
"For me it was important after that to dramatically change the architecture, where suddenly you've got one person in an open space. There you have Marilyn. Having exposed the whole band, I just remember having the, 'This is the Marilyn moment.' It goes right down to one instrument and that's her.
"The whole tension has changed here; the focus has changed. In some ways I think of it as highly architectural but with some cinematics. I'm not a great cinema buff but it's always interesting the way films have the ability to show the bigger vista, then they pan and bring the focus to one specific detail: it could be an eye, or it could be a hand, or it could be a small gesture. But I'm interested in how you can focus the sound. You're channeling everybody into a particular way of listening.
"The other thing that I did at this initial stage was put all the names on a list and connect up who, to my knowledge, had played with whom. There were the obvious trios and parings that had featured in my musical life. But what about Johannes Bauer, for instance. There evolved this very complex, spaghetti-like diagram. And then I started looking at the diagram to realize who hadn't played with somebody in a particular situation. So not only were there the familiar groups, but also the unfamiliar, as well – which became a useful tool to evaluate structural procedures.
"What I try to do is also think of the possibilities of it going wrong as well as right – if it deviated into an area which wouldn't be appropriate. But then you have the trust of the players. I always have the complete trust in the improvisers: they instinctively know where in the creative process it should go. There's a kind of mystery in this, as well, about how these things might work. But I try to assess the probabilities of where they might go. And it can come up with massive surprises, but on the other hand, its creativity is assured."
Inscape – Tableaux may be a monument to Barry Guy's ingenuity and these improvisers' singular skills, but it will be a balancing act to keep the BGNO a viable affair. While a number of national arts councils have generously supported the band, it's been difficult just getting everyone in the same place. "In reality, of course, it's been the biggest nightmare ever," Guy explains referring to the logistics. "The old days of meeting the London Jazz Composers Orchestra at Heathrow Terminal 2 was not to happen anymore." Still, the BGNO regroups in Nickelsdorf, Austria this August. Then there's a three-city Scandinavian tour in the fall. And next spring it seems the group will be in Paris and in Mulhouse in the summer.
With the LJCO on hold, Guy is committed to making the New Orchestra an ongoing project. Not only is he hoping to produce more music, but Mats Gustafsson has plans to write for the group, as well. And after this second spell of gigs, one might expect "Inscape-Tableaux" to still find its place in the band's book. "Could be," Guy responds. "Since the piece is actually taking on a good feel, people are relaxing into the music now.... The thing that I definitely want to present to an audience is something which is organic and growing in front of you. I want the process to be joyous and energizing – to breathe."