Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


London Jazz Composers Orchestra                                             Courtesy of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger


2020 marks major anniversaries for a series of closely connected groups that have had a significant impact on the shape of improvised music over the past half-century.

In 2020, the London Jazz Composers Orchestra is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a creative entity, an almost unimaginable prospect at the group’s inception. It’s a tribute to Barry Guy’s energy and vision that the band first came into existence, and more remarkable still that his sustained commitment and creativity have kept it alive this long.

Since its initial inspiration of New York’s Jazz Composers Orchestra, the LJCO has worked with the challenge of integrating compositional order and spontaneous improvisation, but it also developed on fertile ground. In the late 1960s, there was a burgeoning school of jazz orchestrators and composers in England interested in longer forms, notably Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier and Kenny Wheeler; and there was also Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, a big band with a unique dynamic of South African and British musicians. Their work coincided with a wave of European large ensembles emphasizing free improvisation, including Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra and Alan Silva’s Celestial Communication Orchestra.

It’s apparent in the LJCO’s beginnings that these multiple strands were further woven into some of the most radical small group improvisation extant at the time (and since), notably the prototypical John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble (Stevens and members Wheeler, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Derek Bailey, and Guy all appear here) and more recent formations like the Evan Parker-Paul Lytton Duo, Paul Rutherford’s Iskra (also formed in 1970 with Guy and Bailey), and pianist Howard Riley’s trio with Guy and Tony Oxley, all members of the LCJO at its outset.

One of the things that distinguishes the LCJO (and its immediate derivatives like Guy’s Blue Shroud Band, which shares personnel with the current LJCO) is that it retains the fervor of its early years. It has roots in revolutions and they remain in many ways as immediate as they were fifty years ago, not only for the force of some of the early members who still participate in its projects but in the ways in which Guy has continued to evolve the idea of the orchestra and its music through the decades, not only in his own major works but in expansive projects featuring guest soloists (Maggie Nicols, Marilyn Crispell) and two in which visionary composer-performers, Anthony Braxton and Irène Schweizer, have brought their own works to the orchestra.

The LJCO’s discography has emphasized those large pieces. Until this year, the LJCO’s first decade has been represented by a singular epic masterpiece: Guy’s own Ode, a seven-part work recorded in 1972, and first issued on LP by Incus and on CD in 1996 by Intakt. However, in honor of the 50th anniversary, Not Two Records has just released That Time, a CD of previously unissued early performances by the orchestra that expands that view: the early LJCO was much more a workshop, performing works composed by several other members. Those represented here include Wheeler, Rutherford, and Riley, as well as Guy, while Tony Oxley, whose recorded compositions couldn’t be rescued, is represented here by the cover art. That Time includes four works from four different performances, two from 1972, two from 1980. Each is illumined by a distinctive personal fire transmuted through ensembles of about 20 players.

First up is Kenny Wheeler’s happily inclusive “Watts Parker Beckett to me Mr. Riley?” It’s a solo order as much as a composition that summons up the creative wealth of associations among the players. The expatriate Canadian had already explored syntheses of scored and improvised materials on pieces like Windmill Tilter, his tone poem based on Don Quixote with the John Dankworth Orchestra. The present piece mines contemporaneous jazz energies to propel a series of hyper-kinetic solos that would not be out of place in many current settings, from the burbling, seething alto solo of Trevor Watts and Evan Parker’s brilliant honk through the trumpets of Harry Beckett and Wheeler (the latter at this stage exploring abstracted wisps of sound) to the wondrously controlled work of Riley, who remains a subtly creative figure to this day.

Guy’s own “Statements III” appears next. His liner note alludes to the influence of the performance setting – the contemporary classical music-oriented Donaueschingen Musiktage 1972 – on his writing, and the resultant material effectively builds contrasting zones of sound that seamlessly fuse improvisation and composition, creating some spare spaces integrating reeds, basses and percussion, often anchored by multiphonic tenor blasts. In the interest of balance, it’s heard here in a 17-minute fragment. It would have been interesting to hear it in its 40-minute totality.

Jumping ahead to 1980, brings us to Paul Rutherford’s “Quasimodo III,” a turbulent, shifting wall of complex voices that occasionally gives way to relatively delicate sub-groups as well as a recurring, slightly haunted melody played by a choir of trombonists, including Rutherford, Alan Tomlinson and Paul Nieman. At times, the music seems to be moving mysteriously backwards, with an unusual effect from the trumpets that seems virtually electronic. “Appolysian,” composed by Howard Riley and a subtle verbal play on the usual distinction between order and energy, similarly uses composed “modules” that underscore improvisations and are used selectively in performance. It begins with a wonderful scattershot mix of piano interior with the strings of Philipp Wachsmann, Guy, and Peter Kowald (and likely Tony Oxley, who is credited with violin as well as percussion).

Each of these four pieces is a complex of motives and methods, compound structures and spontaneous impulses that constantly shift, evolve and reinvent themselves, new textures and sounds suddenly emerging, whether a dense orchestral cluster or a sudden individual voice. No description can give a real sense of this music in its formative stages, when its achievement is in part the expansion of sound and the blurring, shifting, flowing character of patterns. The individual compositions may be most distinguished by their devotion to, and success in realizing collective creative ends.

In that spirit, credit should be given to every musician aboard these four performances, whether or not their individual roles can be distinguished or identified in the listening. The trumpeters present also include Mark Charig, Dave Holdsworth, and Dave Spence; Mike Gibbs plays trombone and Dick Hart and Melvyn Poore, tuba; the reeds include Mike Osborne, Alan Wakeman, Dave White, John Warren, Larry Stabbins, Tony Coe, and Peter Brötzmann; bassists Jeff Clyne and Chris Laurence and percussionists Paul Lytton and John Stevens also appear.

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The duo of Evan Parker and Paul Lytton formed in late 1969 and first performed in 1970. Though their period of greatest activity as a duo belongs largely to the 1970s, there’s a special quality to a 2019 studio recording from Chicago entitled Collective Calls (Revisited) (Jubilee) (Intakt), referencing the 1972 release Collective Calls (Urban) (Two Microphones) (originally on Incus, reissued on psi). It’s a pared down return to the duo form. While Parker/Lytton’s 1970s performances and recordings were distinguished by an array of global percussion, electronics, home-made instruments, and supplementary recordings of the duo, they return to the dialogue with just a standard jazz drum-kit and a tenor saxophone.

What most marks the release is its reflective, conversational calm. Parker’s phrases coil in ever-shifting directions, whether extended by circular breathing or not. Lytton’s drums and cymbals create dense yet reserved explosions of sounds that seem somehow oddly casual. Call it free improvisation, but each piece is continuously structured by each musician’s immediate attention to the detail and nuance of the other’s lines, particularly notable on “beheading their own king.” The track titles here give more away of the music’s invention than any review might. They’re taken from Elias Canetti’s Party in the Blitz, resulting in an omni-temporal relevance that might play to almost any historical moment from the past 400 years, whether it’s “...the dissent that began with the Quakers?...,” “How tight knit was England” or “Alfreda was always especially cordial to me...” The latter is just one of the pieces here that demonstrates the duo’s empathy, beginning with a rapid percussive flurry that only reveals its identity as saxophone keys at the conclusion.

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2020 also marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of these musicians’ most active ensemble, the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, first assembled in 1980.  Along the way, it has occasionally added guests (among them Marilyn Crispell, Agustí Fernández, Peter Evans, and Sten Sandell and David Stackenäs) and has also become through continual doubling and expansion, the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble which almost reaches the scale of the LCJO.

Parker-Guy-Lytton is a well-documented group and that occasionally leads to complaints about a certain sameness. I prefer to think of the famous comment about AMM recordings, to the effect that they’re “as like and unalike as trees;” however, in the case of P-G-L (and AMM, too, for that matter), I’d make it precipitation, which comes in fewer forms but has a far greater sonic repertoire based on its types, density, rate of descent and the variety of surfaces it can strike. Without getting into any “greatest ever” list, I’ll keep it personal: the only other tenor-bass-drum trio recordings I listen to regularly are by bands that may have only lasted a day or a season: Sonny Rollins’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones; Rollins’ Freedom Suite with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach; and Albert Ayler’s work with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, groups in which everyone involved is carrying as much as possible.

Parker-Guy-Lytton’s latest is Concert in Vilnius (No Business) from a 2017 recording and it can reside happily with the rest of the trio’s work. The music creates a kind of zone, or a series of zones, a filling-up-of-time so dense that it carries with it a sense of place, a certain psychic space. Part of how the trio works is as a tapestry, literally a weave of vertical and horizontal elements. And one of the things that happens in that weave is a certain kind of shift in the thread, the way in which the sounds of wind, string or drum can mutate into something very close to the other. It’s a kind of sonic kinship that can rarely happen. Just as saxophone keys can become drum and drum can become saxophone keys in the Parker/Lytton duo, the trio extends the process further, three instruments sliding into one another’s identities. This blurring of outline, this shamanic moment, this crossing of boundaries, is an essential moment of consciousness and the specific articulation of empathy. There’s an especially beautiful moment here in a reverie in “Part III”: Guy is bowing long tones, Lytton is exploring a narrow range of high frequency percussion and Parker contributes an evanescent lyrical line, each musician seemingly playing as little and as much as possible. There are also sudden and beautiful moments in which Parker suddenly enters what was once the soprano solo zone (continuous multiphonics and polyphony achieved with circular breathing), but does so on tenor and in the midst of the trio – these sudden intrusions of the timeless oscillating trance now summoned instantly as part of a social dialogue.

It's as welcome as the other anniversary-marking recordings.

© 2020 Stuart Broomer

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