An old hand at adapting program music for a large ensemble of improvisers is bassist Barry Guy, who has directed the London Jazz Composers Orchestra since 1970. Schweben - Ay But Can Ye? Maya Records MCD 1201 is particularly noteworthy since Guy’s composition for the 22-piece Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) links a Wassily Kandinksy painting to a poem by his Soviet contemporary Vladimir Mayakovsky and that verse’s translation into Scots dialect by Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Scotland’s national poet. No academic exercise, Guy’s suite melds dissonant timbres of Scots phraseology with polyphonic gyrations from solo, group or dual instrumental combinations.
Variants of the poem are heard at intervals during the nearly 48-minute performance, but since most words, phrases and sentences are swallowed or strained from the throats of Nicola MacDonald and Aileen Campbell, birth near the River Clyde would seem to necessary for full understanding of the meaning – an impression confirmed by an earlier track where Morgan reads the poem. With verbal comprehension ruptured, attention moves to the vocalists’ tessitura, which includes bel canto warbling and lyrical scene-setting. Meantime GIO members’ virtuosity is given full reign, including harsh rasgueado from the harpist, angled friction from the violinists and bassists, wide-bore brass snorts, slurping and stabbing reed lines, staccato flute rasps and broadly emphasized piano glissandi. The earliest variation concludes with a warm interlocking of voice syllables and tutti orchestral quivers. This imaginative balance continues throughout subsequent sequences as stentorian rhythms from dual percussionists and quivers from the layered background arrangement pull back at junctures for emotional vocalese or descriptive drama from trombone blats, crashing cymbals or crisp accelerating saxophone vamps from Raymond Macdonald and John Burgess. Finally the sonic hegemony reaches a writhing crescendo where the reeds’ whistled and angled split tones, each more jagged and atonal than the previous one, make common cause with the verbal jabberwocky. Overall the evenly distributed orchestral passages plus heartfelt individual solos illuminate the poem(s) plus painting more than the vocalists’ garbled phrases. A fascinating coda has Morgan discussing Mayakovsky’s influence on his poetics.
(Ken Waxman July 2013)