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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Blue Shroud Band - Intensegrity: The Small Formations / Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor (Not Two, 2019) *****

Since 2010, large groups led by Barry Guy have had residencies at the Krakow Jazz Autumn Festival in November of every other year; 2010 & 12 with the 12 piece Barry Guy New Orchestra and 2014 & 16 with the 14 piece Blue Shroud Band. As part of their multiple days stay, they would spend the daylight hours in rehearsals for a culminating full group performance and the evenings performing in small formations where, in Guy's words from Colin Green's perceptive interview, "all the players respond to new settings with a corresponding brilliance in the results." Fortunately for us the Not Two label has recorded and released these small formations, chronologically, as Mad Dogs, Mad Dogs on the Loose, Tensegrity and Intensegrity; with a bonus in the current release of the full group performance of Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor. Before getting to the music itself, the only constant performers on all four releases are Guy, Maya Homburger on baroque violin and pianist Agustí Fernández. With the somewhat younger Blue Shroud Band, Peter Evans on trumpet and Per Texas Johansson on reeds from Tensegrity are replaced, respectively, by Percy Pursglove and Jürg Wickihalder on the new set.

Seeing that Evans wasn't on this release when opening up the box put me in a foul mood which was quickly dissipated by Pursglove's extended mastery of the instrument on the opening solo performance. This is followed by Homburger playing the closing passacaglia from H. I. F. Biber's Mystery Sonatas as a seamless example of the "musical stretching between old and new music" she mentioned in the interview. That is quickly followed by Julius Gabriel playing a solo based on the four descending notes of the previous theme, which is a descriptive frame for a circular breathing multiphonic tour de force on baritone saxophone which is as continually developing as it is technically brilliant. The first time I was distractedly listening I kept thinking "what's that underlying theme that sounds familiar?" As that fades down in ferocity, vocalist Savina Yannatou enters with some breathy wordless sound dots which Gabriel responds to with soft burbly baritone utterances. Eventually that ramps up just before Guy and violinist Fanny Paccoud join the fray for some four way interplay enhanced by harsh attacks on the strings before they all give way to Pursglove, Torben Snekkestad on soprano sax, Michel Godard on tuba and Ramón López on percussion for 13 minutes of inspired interaction particularly near the conclusion when Snekkestad seems to be playing two saxes.

All of the above was a continual 43 minute performance uninterrupted by applause until the end. Guy made it clear in his interview that he thinks of these small formations as "release valves" after intense rehearsals. Although he seems to be applying that to everyone, the pressure on him to deliver the penultimate work must have been huge compared to the other musicians. Unlike on the lp sized packaging of the two Mad Dogs collections, the tracks aren't identified by what day they were performed, although the liner notes of Tensegrity strongly hinted that they were all in chronological order. And there's a palpable feeling of building toward the final cut on disc 4 featuring all horns, woodwinds, percussionists and Agustí Fernández in an all out blare fest that was enthusiastically received by the festival crowd. Earlier highlights include Michael Niesemann's alto sax dancing around Fernández's deep piano string manipulations until they reach a common motif, and Yannatou and Niesemann squaring off with dueling staccato notes like two chattering woodpeckers as Ramón López percussively moderates.

ferocious women giving birth
to little bird feet
dancing until they become
a great piano concerto.

silent tongues
black and luminous
shuttle-shivering cries tap-dancing
down the streets of Brooklyn -
brilliant dissonances
breaths sucked into the incongruous clubs
are spit out like fire
as our tongues lap up the burning air.

and your ivory voice sings
breaking like fragile cartilage
in the clear air
of points wing/ed and pure
beating, colliding in subtle counterpoint -
crossings -
birds fly between here and there
singing furiously in delicate tongues.

Those are Three Poems for Cecil Taylor written by Marilyn Crispell, the first of which was incorporated in the third piece, Strange Loops, of a 1995 performance of one of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra's less well known (i.e. not in my collection) releases "Three Pieces for Orchestra". Guy rewrote the score to reflect the changed instrumentation of the Blue Shroud Band and to add three "meditations", each containing a poem sung by Savina Yannatou, to precede a main section and become "Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor". Thanks to Spotify I was able to compare the old and new versions of the three pieces and the differences in the groups (the LCJO is much more brass heavy, for example) make comparisons somewhat inappropriate. Yannatou does a good job of taking over for Maggie Nicols's exhilarating vocals on the wonderfully dissonantly charged Strange Loops (my wife asked me during the earlier version "is that Halloween music?"; I thought for a second and said "kind of"). The second extended piece, Sleeping Furiously, features Agustí Fernández and he delivers a typically inspired blend of piano technique and passion appropriate for the subject of the work. In the first piece, Owed to John Stevens, I could hear some of the unison horn lines from the final cut on side 4 as the rehearsals started building group dynamics with staying power.

It was satisfying to have the ultimate group performance included in this small formations box set, which had been lacking from the previous three. That it was done as a tribute to one of the giants of music while he was still living by someone he held in high regard makes it even more satisfying. This marked the last performance of this type by the Blue Shroud Band; in Guy's 2018 residency at the Krakow fest he added some old and new faces. I now have a solid block of 18 discs of small group improvisation that I can listen to at any time and hear something satisfyingly familiar and also something waiting to be newly appreciated. If I had to choose only one collection I'd probably go with the original Mad Dogs; but fortunately I don't have to do that.


Colin Green said...

Very good review, Stephen. I think you’re right about the rotating small formations: there’s a continuity between some pieces and what follows, one set of thoughts being picked up by others.

I was also impressed with ‘Sleeping Furiously’, three Haiku’s in a sort of mini piano concerto for the fleet-fingered Fernández. The title is an allusion to Chomsky’s famous example of a syntactically well-formed sentence that is semantic nonsense, though poetically evocative: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.

Stephen Griffith said...

Thanks, Colin. Your interview with Guy was very helpful for insights on this since the usual suspects elsewhere have ignored it (I'm sure The Wire covered it but as a non subscriber it may as well be on a server orbiting Alpha Centauri) and I wanted to help fill the gap. The first Mad Dogs, about which I became aware through Dan Sorrells's enthusiastic review here and the high placement on best of lists for the year, was such a relative success in this sub niche genre that the waning of interest has been a bit disappointing. Although multi disc sets exacerbate the so much music so little time quandary.