Blue Shroud Band
Blue Shroud Band
Première in Krakow by John Sharpe
From the first notes the audience was spell bound. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. Trumpeter Peter Evans circular breathed a barely audible whistle, which he gradually ramped up to siren intensity. But then he went further, his piercing shriek taking on the visceral dimensions of an air raid claxon. A powerful group crescendo, including a machine gun rat-a-tat from the twin trapsets of Ramon Lopez and Lucas Niggli and thunderous slabs of sound from Agusti Fernandez under the bonnet of the piano instantly evoked not only bombings, but also other wars and conflicts around the world.
Such strong feelings were entirely appropriate for "The Blue Shroud," a new piece by English composer and bassist Barry Guy, which received its world premiere at the 9th Krakow Jazz Autumn. Inspired by Picasso's masterpiece Guernica and the events which provoked it, the work just might be the crowning achievement in the Englishman's long and varied career.
At age 67, Guy can look back on an unprecedented body of work, which spans the classical, contemporary, jazz and improv worlds. Renowned as a sensitive interpreter of baroque music (the Englishman appears on over 150 recordings, and has performed with all the specialist early music ensembles), he regularly juxtaposes renditions of the works of the seventeenth century composer H.I.F. Biber alongside his own compositions in concert and on his albums with his partner, violinist Maya Homburger, such as the splendidTales Of Enchantment (Intakt, 2012).
In jazz circles the two strands for which he is best known can be seen as opposite ends of the spectrum. At one extreme lies the high voltage improv, showcased to staggering effect in a long standing trio of compatriots saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Paul Lytton, while at the other stands the large scale charts of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, seen in the last incarnation on Harmos Live At Schaffhausen (Intakt, 2012), and his scaled back Barry Guy New Orchestra, evidenced on Amphi + Radio Rondo (Intakt, 2014), their third release.
However Guy's constructs seek to reconcile the two poles by devising settings which stimulate and frame spontaneous colloquy between participants, often spotlighting already extant configurations. "The Blue Shroud" followed that template, but took the interweaving of diverse threads one step further by including fragments of baroque works alongside jazz and improv. In order to realize his singular vision, Guy hand-picked a multinational crew which could meet the technical demands of the baroque, yet wield the unfettered imagination required for the improvisation.
In his program notes, Guy explained that "there were three strands that informed the writing of "The Blue Shroud." The bombing in 1937 of the Basque city of Guernica by German Condor Legion pilots at the invitation of Franco, the painting by Pablo Picasso that arose following the event, and in more recent times (2003) a blue drape that was hung over a tapestry reproduction of the Guernica painting in the United Nations building before US Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his case for invading Iraq to TV viewers and the world in general. Incontestably, the Guernica image of death, panic and mayhem would have sent a far too literal message about the horrors of war to the receivers of Powell's statement."
If you told most jazz fans that a gig was going to involve a specially convened ensemble playing a composition bringing together baroque music, improvisation and jazz they would likely head for the hills, having endured one too many special festival commissions in the past. In Krakow that would have been a very big mistake, and not just because it's snowy up there.
In its entirety the work dazzled as a 80-minute multifaceted journey through transcendent melodies, whipcrack orchestral interjections, intricate rhythmic figures, solo and small group outbursts, song and recitation. Guy's triumph was that all those disparate elements cohered into a singular experience. After the startling introduction, changes came thick and fast, as first delicate strings then reed shimmies transformed the emotional direction. A lyric Spanish-tinged duet between classical guitarist Ben Dwyer and Guy led into a lush setting for Greek vocalist Savina Yannatou's singing of a specially written text by Irish poet Kerry Hardie (a former neighbour of Guy when he lived in Ireland), entitled "Symbols of Guernica."
Guy revisited a gambit familiar from Theoria (Intakt, 1992), by sequencing concentrated eruptions of small group improvisation, which switched from one to another in swift succession. The disparate flavors and textures served to both keep things fresh and disorientate. Guy cued the transformations while still playing, pointing with his bow in one hand, while tapping the fingerboard with the other. Among the combinations which stood out were Evans' playful duet with Fernandez, the pianist's alliance with German reedman Michael Niesemann's alto saxophone, and young saxophonist Julius Gabriel's snorting baritone pyrotechnics. Later the gambit resurfaced in a series of quick changing twosomes with Lopez' drums the constant ingredient, which in their briskness resembled a session with a particularly picky speed dater.
Thorny rhetoric from the trio of Guy, Dwyer and Yannatou's improvising voice re-emerged several times to form a recurrent motif. Yannatou shifted between anguished reminders of human pain and suffering, and serene and elegant singing of the poem's stark imagery. One interchange with the split tones generated by Torben Snekkestad's reed trumpet was particularly striking. As well has Hardie's words, she also wove in spoken phrases which Hardie expressly selected from Powell's speech, relating to UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and weapons of mass destruction.
Perhaps Niesemann's part best illustrated the dual requirements of the score. A professor at the prestigious Essen Folkwang University, he has recorded together with Guy on recitals of Bach with Sir John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists, but is also active in jazz and contemporary realms. At times he took on the role which English reedman Trevor Watts has filled in Guy's work in the past as an impassioned soloist soaring through and above a surging orchestral vamp. Yet subsequently he also played the baroque oboe d'amore in the "Agnus Dei" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in D Minor. And did both superbly.
Guy's co-option of works by Biber and Bach meant that the piece boasted some of the most beautiful tunes ever written, which heightened the poignancy of both the vocal texts and the musical settings from which they issued. Perhaps after all the abrupt cuts, the slow natural transitions took on a seamless aspect, meaning that the baroque sat comfortably amid the modern. The timeless melodies served to convey the resilience of the human spirit as well as the promise of redemption. The overall impact was incredibly moving. After the "Agnus Dei," a freewheeling coda brought proceedings to a close, eliciting a rapturous standing ovation from the enthralled crowd.
Although the concert took place in a studio in Radio Krakow, the performance was not recorded and there are no dates set for the unit to reassemble. "The Blue Shroud" convinced as stunning on first hearing, but would reveal many more facets on repeated listening. One can only hope that funding can be found to permit a studio session.
John Sharpe, The New York City Jazz Record, 2014