Hot on the heels of two duo albums on Barry Guy’s Maya label, this 3-CD set comprises 70th birthday celebrations that took place over three days during Warsaw’s Ad Libitum Festival in October last year, curated by Maciej Karlowski of Fundacja Słuchaj (the Listen Foundation) and held at the aptly named Laboratorium adjoining the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle. It was an opportunity for Guy to renew old acquaintances, make one in a setting that was long overdue, and as befits his age, reflect on how understanding the past is a way of conferring sense on the present.
Guy’s music is marked by an enthusiastic experimentation with various forms and genres, ranging from the Baroque to jazz and improvisation, with an active interest in art, poetry and architecture. He’s also a distinguished composer of contemporary classical music, work less well known though deserving of equal attention, some of which explores an amalgam of the modern and historic but as in the music of György Kurtág, in such a way as to avoid an ironic theatricalisation of the past. Like all polymaths, Guy can’t be pigeonholed: he’s difficult to classify precisely because he has so much to say – Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes” springs to mind – and three concerts are not enough to capture the full scope of his imagination. Nevertheless, they cover wide-ranging musical ground and give an insight into some of the facets that make up his multifarious personality. Though his influences and interests are many however, Guy’s greatest inspiration comes from those with whom he plays:
“It’s an integrated musical life, whether I’m playing the bass or I’m playing with my colleagues or I’m playing with myself. But the playing of the bass and the extensions of that playing or the type of playing, whether it’s Baroque music or improvised or extended, it’s all to do with the art of playing music with other people. That’s the great leveller, you’re dealing with people.”The opening session is of Guy on double bass and Agustí Fernández, piano. They’ve performed for some years now as a duo and in a trio with drummer Ramón López (the Aurora Trio) a group described by Fernández as the confluence of three musical traditions: Spanish classical music, jazz and free improvisation. Perhaps Fernández was returning the favour for Guy’s appearance with that trio at his own 60th birthday tribute at the Ad Libitum Festival (the constellation of Guy’s collaborations would fill a wall chart) and they play works featured on their previous duo and trio recordings, together with two wholly improvised Interludes.
Guy’s compositions are often loose and open-ended, extending beyond their apparent boundaries with unexpected turns and provocative shifts. The pair begin with his ‘Annalisa’, a staple of their recitals. A free introduction draws the elements together into a slow, graceful theme picked out by Guy accompanied by rippling piano, which then disintegrates as they expand outwards. There’s an abrupt change as the tune is played in unison at top-speed alternating with thunderous interjections, finally switching back to its former elegance with piano strings providing harp-like glissandi.
The duo exploit levels of dynamic and textural contrast both within and between each piece. Fernández’ enigmatically titled ‘How to go into a room you are already in’ incorporates silence as a dramatic presence as his lilting, Satie-esque melody is unfurled, little by little, followed by ‘Interlude 1’ with prepared piano and treated bass swirling in a cloud of earthy textures and dematerialised sounds. ‘Uma’ consists of varied embellishments of a repeating tune that seems to snake back into itself, morphing directly into ‘Interlude 2’, a study in pulsing resonance. Guy’s ‘The Ancients’ is a grand theme, surging and swelling as it builds and releases, and the duo end with Marilyn Crispell’s ‘Rounds’, more assembly instructions than a composition, made up of assorted articulations of the same melodic segment in always fluctuating movement, as if splitting and merging at a cellular level. ‘Can Ram’ is the encore, another exploration of transitions, from pure sound to musical fragments to the full emergence of Fernández’ noble tune.
On the second day, Guy was joined by Marilyn Crispell (piano) and Paul Lytton (drums). The trio had recorded the studio album Deep Memory (Intakt, 2016) two years earlier, a revival of the group that had made three significant albums in the opening decade of the century focussing on Guy’s own compositions, sometimes from his work for other forces. (One of the fascinating aspects of Guy’s music is the importance of context and how his scores can be reconstituted in different settings, such as the successive realisations of Tales of Enchantment (Intakt, 2012) in Amphi (Intakt, 2014) and Time Passing... (Maya, 2015), a trilogy that moves from Baroque violin and double bass to ever larger and more diverse ensembles.)
Save for two encores, the trio’s set consists of the same pieces featured on Deep Memory and in the same order, with that extra vivacity performance before an audience brings. Loss and return, the importance of shared memory and the passage of time are frequent allusions in Guy’s titles, and themes for the inspiration and construction of much of his more recent music. The pieces he composed for Deep Memory are named after specific paintings in a 2007 Berlin exhibition, Last Poems, by Irish artist Hughie O’Donoghue, sensuous canvases suspended somewhere between representation and abstraction that appealed to Guy for their complex layering of paint, rich colours and surface texture, like accretions memorialising and reinventing the past. In a similar spirit, Guy wanted the piano trio to engage with the tradition of the medium – and the trio’s own history – whilst exploring new avenues of expression, so that what we hear is a suite of multiple narratives which looks back and projects forward.
For all the composite strands to his thinking, Guy understands the virtues of simple tableaux that speak directly, and of a big, bold melody (the serpentine theme that runs through Harmos (Intakt, 1989) is a memorable example). ‘Scent’ is a wistful tune with a Spanish aroma, wafting over arpeggios and tremolos that mimic a guitar. ‘Fallen Angel’ moves between razor-sharp cascades and an undulating figure which grows in solidity and ends with a rhapsodic ascent and reconciliation. In ‘Sleeper’ Crispell provides subtle inner voicings that evoke Bill Evans, eventually giving way to agitated dreams – brutal chords, gritty bass, juddering percussion – from which the piece drifts back to the opening melody, concluding with a jolt. ‘Blue Horizon’, used as the cover artwork for Deep Memory and from which the current collection takes its name, is an elegy of Coltrane-like gravitas, and ‘Return of Ulysses’ with its nervous bebop head, leaping chords, darting runs, scratchy bass and percolating drums suggests the more troubling aspects of the end to his odyssey. During ‘Silenced Music’ each of the trio display their individual sensitivity of touch: swishes and shudders floating about a simple motif decorated and developed by Crispell’s refined keyboard work. In comparison, ‘Dark Days’ is swept along by Lytton’s propulsive gusts in a blur of rapidly repeated notes, incisive staccatos, looping chords and Guy’s skidding bow.
The encores are short and contrasting improvisations. ‘Gossamer’ is just that, a web of fragile textures spun out by the trio, and ‘Voyagers find, whatever is to be found’ is a rousing mash-up. The title is from the poet Edwin Morgan, a line given by Guy to his wife, the Baroque violinist Maya Homburger, many years ago as part of a Christmas card. In return, this box set was prepared in collaboration with her without Guy’s knowledge, as a surprise.
The final concert was a set of duo improvisations with fellow bassist, Joëlle Léandre. Although the pair had played as part of a bass quartet in Le Mans back in the early 80s, and both feature on Sebastian Gramss’ bass-fest, Thinking Of… (recorded at separate locations) this was the first time they’d performed as a duo; a welcome event given their previous partnerships with other great bassists, Peter Kowald, Barre Phillips and William Parker. The feeling of something belated is reflected in the track titles.
These are two double bassists with a strong classical background, who use the bow extensively, and each has developed their own, almost immediately identifiable morphology. Their improvisations are rooted in what might be considered the modernist fascination with “truth to materials”, as typified in the sculpture of Constantin Brâncuși, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, bringing out the inherent properties of the materials they worked – polished bronze, stone that is hard and smooth, the pristine purity of marble, soft organic wood. In a musical context this manifests itself as an appreciation for the fundamentals of sound and its physical production – a function of brain and body – textures that spring from the very nature of the bass and how it can be manipulated, though paradoxically the results can sound completely new, startling contrasts that highlight idiomatic sonorities yet act as defeats of our expectations. They play what could only be achieved on their instrument while often sounding nothing like it.
With Léandre (left side) and Guy (right) they dive headlong into the opening ‘About Time Too’ with vigorous virtuosity. Timbre inspires form as the pair scrape and rattle, snap and scuffle, giving shape to something latent so that making becomes mimetic of the processes of understanding itself. They radiate energy in a welter of bowed resonance and sizzling strings, gradually revealing finer nuances and gradations. Spurred on by Léandre’s vocal contributions textures thicken and thin, melodic bubbles rise to the surface and the piece builds to a conclusion in ocean waves of rosiny chords.
There’s also indeterminacy, a consequence of the inherent mutability of sound: ephemeral, unstable and subject to myriad inflections, endlessly malleable. Léandre and Guy exploit this over 22 minutes in ‘High Time’ with astonishing variety in a process of mutual interrogation and acute responses – exchanging, prompting and challenging one another. As Guy has said, the act of creating music on the spot is emotionally thrilling as well as intellectually satisfying. The pair slip from one zone to another with full-toned thickets of plucked notes, circulating percussive patterns, overlapping glissandi chords falling like leaves in a forest. There are shifts in intensity and focus, fine-grained then majestic, trenchant followed by tender. We hear colliding vectors of serrated edges played below the bridge set against glassy harmonics, and an almost infinite range of surface topologies. They fade out with spiccato taps, flutterings and rustles.
The final track, an encore, finds their basses intertwined, slowly descending to the lowest registers, followed by silence and enthusiastic applause. The title of this last piece, ‘No Matter Where Never Before’, is taken from one of Samuel Beckett’s late poems, encapsulating the conjoined sense of freshness and familiarity which improvisation can provide and how, through our fund of collective memories, time does not erode but renews:
go where never before
no sooner there than there always
no matter where never before
no sooner there than there always
The set can be ordered or downloaded from Fundacja Słuchaj’s Bandcamp site.
As a Christmas bonus, and further evidence that Guy is not slowing down, here’s a concert from a few months ago from the Újbuda Jazz Festival in Budapest given by him with Homburger and Zlatko Kaučičat. The performance includes Biber’s Mystery Sonatas I and IX – a collection that’s something of a lodestone for Guy and Homburger, who’s recorded them complete – Guy’s ‘Celebration’ for violin, beautiful ‘Peace Piece’ and the ‘Tales of Enchantment’ suite mentioned above, each augmented by Kaučičat’s inventive percussion. There’s also Steve Lacy’s ‘Art’, and the addition of two further string players to conclude. If you’re wondering how to fill the holiday period, follow this up with the same three on the excellent Without Borders (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2017) and the just released, Free Radicals at DOM (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2018) featuring Peter Evans, Fernández and Guy in Moscow. A surfeit of riches to see you into the New Year.
For those interested in delving further into Guy’s musical history and thinking, I recommend an enlightening essay by Benjamin Dwyer, interviews with Dwyer and Duncan Heining, and Stuart Broomer’s report on ‘The Blue Shroud’ from Point of Departure .