Barry Guy & Ken Vandermark – Occasional Poems (Not Two Records, 2015) ****
In November 2008, Ken Vandermark (reeds), Barry Guy (double bass) and Mark Sanders (drums) undertook a short tour of England. Two of the gigs, from Birmingham and Leeds, appeared on Fox Fire (Maya Recordings, 2009), one of Vandermark’s most impressive recordings where he rises to the challenge of playing with Guy and the new areas into which this pushed him.
Guy and Vandermark played again six years later in November 2014 at the Alchemia Club in Kraków during the ninth Autumn Jazz Festival, their first time as a duo. Guy was at the end of a week-long residency with his Blue Shroud band and Vandermark (who has a work ethic that puts the rest of us to shame) had agreed to the date at the end of over two months on the road, exhausted and travelling to the sound check direct from the airport. And yet, as is often the case with impromptu meetings in trying circumstances, as Vandermark says, “something special happened”.
On this album, we have nine of the pieces they performed over two sets. The titles have been provided by Guy, inspired by the poet Robert Lax, whose poems have distinctive layouts and make use of the repetition and permutation of a small body of words. According to Guy, “his singular focus on the world around his chosen space is indicative of the way improvisers work – gathering, analysing, inventing and trading ideas in the moments that we are allowed to express our art.” A fair general description of much of what’s going on with he and Vandermark, but works of abstract theatre that takes place in a rarefied realm, the nuances of which have no precise descriptive equivalent.
With Guy, one gets not just the standard dimensions – the melodic (horizontal) and chordal (vertical) – but the opening up of a third dimension in which shapes move and merge in a continual state of flux. The brilliant intensity of his playing has been likened to the flow of molten lava, the kind of thing that prompted Cecil Taylor to observe, “If I played bass I'd play the way you play”. Guy’s distinctive style is generated from the sonorities of his instrument and idiosyncratic actions (plucked, bowed, scraped, sometimes all three together) and the various treatments and devices he uses, resulting in a very personal vocabulary. But it’s also a language so rich – a sound world that has an almost visible texture, full of ridges, offshoots, nooks and crannies – that other musicians can’t fail but to be inspired. It probably helps not to think too much, and simply respond on a visceral level: exactly the condition of the weary Vandermark. Throughout, one feels the thrill of their having absolutely no idea where they’re going to end up.
At the most general level, these duos explore convergences and conflicts between two voices: communicative and non-communicative, sympathetic and contrasting. Right from the bell, they both go for it. ‘Nature is a Wolf’ is dominated by Guy’s repeated sliding chord, like an incessant cry, and Vandermark’s gnarled, hyper-compressed line. As the titles suggest ‘Light cuts Shadow’ and the ensuing ‘Shadow cuts Light’ can be seen as plays on positive and negative space, contrasting sides of the same thing. In the first, both instruments match each other in mood and texture as if mirroring different aspects of the same material: long, high notes, slithered bowing against rapid scales and leaps on the clarinet, ostinato figures locking them together, even a brief folksy episode. In the second piece the complimentary contrasts are this time in register, long resonant notes on the bass clarinet against dense spicatto and pizzicato on the bass. Roles are then reversed when Vandermark switches to the top end of his range and Guy descends to the lower. The remainder of the piece alternates between these two areas, with contrasting levels of energy. ‘I will Sing to You of The Moments’ is an exercise in perpetual motion, repeated patterns never quite symmetric, moving in and out of alignment and becoming more elaborate as the piece progresses.
There are times however, when Guy and Vandermark seem engaged in two distinct trains of thought, juxtaposed rather than in dialogue. On ‘States of Being’ which opens the second set, they start in the same place but rapidly move in different directions, wrapped in the virtuosic expansion of their own material, side by side, eventually acknowledging the presence of the other and returning to common ground, and finishing with a unison flourish.
Not only do relations change, so do characters and locations. Vandermark can move at will between different provinces in the landscape of free jazz, reflecting his wide-ranging interests, musical and otherwise. This means he doesn’t have a style so much as a series of self-imposed personae. He experiments, not with inclusiveness – trying to cover as much ground as possible – but by moderation, narrowing the range of ideas, colours and textures for each improvisation, the better to explore his chosen region, adjusting focus as he moves from one piece to the next. Vandermark is aware of the importance of boundaries. On ‘Pan Metron Ariston [Every Good Thing In Measure]’ (an old Greek saying) for tenor alone, he limits himself to a blues tune as the basis for a study in split notes, distortion and overtones, contrasted with staccato tonguing and key clatter, sounding a little like a combination of Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann, (with whom he’s played in the trio Sonore). In “Riding the Air’ there’s a continuous line of smeared gestures and phrases on bass clarinet, mainly in the lower registers, as if in mimicry of Guy’s bass which responds in like kind, resulting in mutual imitations. Broken off by Guy’s change of pace and a solemn plucked tune, Vandermark moves back providing gentle sustained notes in accompaniment as Guy’s melody and subtle harmonics sing with ever greater eloquence.
‘Black, White, Red, Blue’ is a bass solo, beginning with a simple succession of plucked glissandi notes which alternate with passages employing an ever increasing range of techniques and devices, below the bridge up to bouncing sticks threaded through the strings. Each time the glissandi notes return they become a richer melody, and as the two textural areas switch their opposition increases, perhaps reflected in the title – pairings of tonal opposites and complimentary colours.
The encore is ‘Curving of the Wave’, a series of quick-fire bursts and exchanges between tenor and bass suggesting that both players had been reinvigorated by their meeting.
The Living Room + Barry Guy – Live at Literathaus (Ilk, 2015) ****
As well as playing in long standing groups and with seasoned musicians, Barry Guy likes to take chances with new ensembles and younger players. Multitude (Cave12, 2010) recorded with Diatribe, a duo of laptop and drums, is a good example, as is this album recorded at Literathaus in Copenhagen in December, 2012 with The Living Room: Torben Snekkestad (saxophones & reed-trumpet), Søren Kjærgaard (piano & keyboards), Thomas Strønen (drums). There’s nothing to suggest the trio were overwhelmed by Guy’s presence (he and Snekkestad had previously recorded Slip Slide and Collide) and Guy is a consummate ensemble musician – unsurprising given his work with everyone from Derek Bailey (subsequently, Philipp Wachsmann) and Paul Rutherford in Iskra 1903, which set new standards in group listening, to the Academy of Ancient Music, one of the pioneering orchestras devoted to period instruments and ‘historically informed’ performance.
These three improvisations can be likened to a whirling constellation – forming, dissolving and reforming – so that no element remains fixed. They’re packed with incident and contrast, frequently eschewing the navigable in favour of multiplicity. ‘Part #1’ brims with activity, simultaneous and overlapping, sometimes focused other times divergent, switching from the bold and assured to gossamer delicacy like a succession of jump cuts.
‘Part #2’ is more restrained: hammered strings on the piano and bass, light percussion and Snekkestad on reed-trumpet (a trumpet with a saxophone reed, having a limited range of notes and distinctive timbre). He plays low burrs over Guy’s glassy bowings and glacial chords on piano. There’s a gentle duet between saxophone and pizzicato bass which becomes more urgent when joined by rapid runs on the piano, increasing in intensity until Snekkestad’s tensile line hangs over a blur of piano, bass and drums. The piece ends with the ripple effect of descending figures and a gradual decay into silence.
‘Part # 3’ opens with Snekkestad’s soprano saxophone cutting through a tangled rain forest of percussive sound. The texture thins out to soft pluckings and scrapings and then builds up again over a web of bass and drums before dying out with light repeated phrases on piano and synthesiser. A piece of ebb and flow.
Both albums are demanding, requiring careful scrutiny and the re-evaluation of expectations. It’s not that they’re cutting-edge (a questionable desideratum) but they involve a complexity of thought and shifting relations which need to be grasped in order to appreciate the movement and balance between the constituent parts, a sign of the depth and capacity for renewal the musical language provides. Words still have some catching up to do, but descriptions will always fall short.