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Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Barry Guy & The London Jazz Composers Orchestra - Harmos-Krakow (Not Two Records, 2022)

By Stef Gijssels, Eyal Hareuveni, Gary Chapin & Martin Schray

We're in for our second CD box by Barry Guy, this time containing 6 CDs, recorded at Alchemia Club in Kraków, Poland on March 6th, 2020, and at Manggha Hall in Kraków on March 7th & March 8th 2020.

The London Jazz Composers Orchestra refers to London as a European-international musical capital and to jazz only as a reference point for more free, challenging music. It is the British answer to the Jazz Composers Orchestra created by Michael Mantler and Cecil Taylor in the US with possibly all free jazz luminaries of the late 60s and early 70s.

Like Guy’s meeting With Friends two years before in the same Alchemia Club in Kraków, the small formations’ live improvisations before an appreciative audience serve as an aperitif for the upcoming orchestral compositions of Guy’s “Flow” and “Harmos-Kraków”.

All improvisations are by members of the "London Jazz Composers Orchestra", first in smaller ensembles, with the grand finale on the sixth CD, offering a rendition of Guy's composition "Harmos". It is the Orchestra's 13th album since 1972.

CD1 - March 6th 2020, Alchemia Club

The first CD starts with a quartet consisting of Barry Guy on bass, Lucas Niggli on drums, Simon Picard on tenor sax, and Michael Nieseman on alto. After some initial explorations, the music finds a common level of interaction, calm at first, subdued and intimate. The two saxes take the lead role, allowed to shine by the strong rhythm section, and wonderfully falling in an almost unison ending. The second piece is an eight minute duet between Julius Gabriel on baritone and Henry Lowther on trumpet. For me, it is a discovery to hear these two musicians who have rarely released as leaders. Their dialogue is friendly and warm, and halfway Gabriel increases the intensity of the interaction. The third piece is again a quartet, clocking at 23 minutes by Andreas Tschopp and Conrad Bauer on trombones, Richard Laughlin on trumpet, and Marc Unternährer on tuba. The horn quartet takes the listener on a journey through dissonance, harmonies, moments of calm, and a rhythmic vamp near the end, organised by Unternährer. The CD is an excellent introduction to some of the members of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra who are less known and less recorded at least. (Stef Gijssels)

CD2 - March 6th 2020, Alchemia Club

The second CD also brings three ensembles, the first one with Torben Snekkestad on sax, Agustí Fernández on piano, and Barry Guy on bass. The initial dialogue between the bass and the sax is fierce, to say the least. The piano soothens things a bit, yet the overall atmosphere remains ominous and dark.
This is followed by a duet between Allan Tomlison on trombone and Phil Wachsmann on violin. Even if at first sight the combination of the heavy horn and the light string instrument might seem odd, both musicians make it an entertaining listen. The CD ends with a long quartet between Jürg Wickihalder on alto, Lucas Niggli on percussion, Bruno Chevillon on cello and Martin Eberle on trumpet. It is one of the most uptempo and joyful pieces you will find on the album, brilliantly propulsed forward by Niggli and Chevillon. There are moments of fun, of exhiliration and brutal intensity. A wonderful closer to the second CD, and with understandable applause by the enthusiastic audience. (Stef Gijssels)

CD3 - March 7th 2020, Manggha Hall

The quintet of trumpeter Henry Lowther, who played in previous formations of the Orchestra, German baritone sax player Julius Gabriel, who played in the Blue Shroud Band, Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández, French double bass player Bruno Chevillon, who played before with Guy in a trio with Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove, and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli, a frequent collaborator of Guy, begin with an extended, urgent and muscular, free jazz improvisation that constantly shapeshifts its dynamics, but with Lowther taking the lead most of the time. The trio of Chevillon, Gabriel and Swiss tubaist Marc Unternähre in his first Guy’s project, explores patiently and gently soft, deep tones. This disc ends with the chamber trio of German alto sax player Michael Niesemann, Fernández and violinist Phil Wachsmann, all long-standing collaborators of Guy. This extended improvisation begins with a series of beautiful, lyrical melodies but later opts for more open, impressionist and even abstract dynamics. (Eyal Hareuveni)

CD4 - March 7th 2020, Manggha Hall

The fourth disc begins with extended improvisation of the reeds and brass quintet of Norwegian sax player and trumpeter Torben Snekkestad, American trumpeter Rich Laughlin, German trombonist Konard Bauer and trombonist Alan Tomlinson, all played with the Orchestra before, and Austrian trumpeter Martin Eberle in his first Guy’s project, sketching at first a fragile and ethereal drone piece that slowly and methodically expands its power and volume, employing an impressive array of extended breathing techniques while exploring nuance, lyrical ideas. It is followed by a powerful and intense free jazz improvisation of a sextet of tenor sax player Simon Picard, Swiss alto sax player Jürg Wickihalder and trombonist Andreas Tschopp, Niggli, all played before with the Orchestra, and French double bass player Bruno Chevillon and Guy himself. Again, this formation investigates orchestral possibilities with impressive command, and risk-taking but with great focus and driving rhythmic force, testifying to Guy’s excellent choice of improvisers who can realize his complex but always inspiring musical visions. (Eyal Hareuveni)

CD5 - March 8th 2020, Manggha Hall

Disc 5 contains two tracks, Flow II (17:18) and Flow I (24:12), in that order. Each has an arc to it and each demonstrates one of the qualities I love most about this outfit: it's ability to create space and small separate sound worlds, and to resist the urge to play everything all at once, because you can.

Flow II starts in waking up space. Bowed strings on their own for about seven minutes. They fade away and a baritone sax (pretty sure) plays a rattle-y drone-ish thing that becomes ground for other reeds. Different timbres get their solos, and layers enter upon layers until finally they are, in fact, playing everything all at once and it is a well-earned joy. It's a disciplined piece, this. Slowly it turns, step by step.

Flow I lives with more groove, which is fun in itself but also a great foil for the autre. The central moments are a cymbal-less drum solo that puts out an abundance of creative ideas that are answered by everyone else throughout the piece. (By Gary Chapin)

CD6 - March 8th 2020, Manggha Hall

The first time I heard Harmos was at the 2008 Schaffhausen Jazz Festival. It was one of the rare times that Barry Guy was able to get the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) together to rehearse and perform. When he started the ensemble in the early 1970s the times for such orchestras and such music were definitely better. In an interview he told the German daily “taz“ that the British Council used to send such large formations to far-flung countries to counter the bad post-colonial image of the Empire with something positive as jazz. In the meantime, however, the organizational effort has become too great and too expensive, he said. This is literally a pity for everyone, because that’s the reason why we can hear compositions like Harmos, which can be called Guy’s magnum opus without any doubt, only very rarely. The first version of the piece was recorded in April 1989, just before the LJCO’s 20th anniversary, in Zurich and was first released later that year. There might have been more performances, the ones I’m aware of took place at the Berlin JazzFest in 1998, another ten years later at the aforementioned Schaffhausen Jazz Festival, and in 2018 at Vienna’s Porgy and Bess club. Now Barry Guy has recorded it again with a much different line-up in Kraków.

Whereas in 1989 the orchestra was a Who’s Who of the British improviser scene, today it’s a collection of first-rate European musicians, with five from Switzerland alone, Guy’s place of residence. Of the original lineup, only Simon Picard (sax), Alan Tomlinson (tb), Henry Lowther (tp), Phil Wachsmann (v) and Guy himself are still with the group. What is more, he has added a tuba (Marc Unternährer) and a second bass (Bruno Chevillon).

Harmos itself has become a classic of avant-garde big band jazz. German jazz critic Bert Noglik called it “a feast, a celebration, a great chant“. Whoever heard the piece would never forget it. I felt the same way after the Schaffhausen concert, and even 14 years later the piece has lost none of its fascination, even if the structure is the same as in the 2022 version: The start with its abrupt, whiplash-like chords that structure the opening improvisation of the two trombones. The hint of the great theme superimposed over the two trombones. How it slowly ebbs away. Light as a feather, a saxophone soars up. It continues to spin the melody, reminiscent of Iberian folk songs. Finally, the full orchestra enters on this melody and the saxophones drop out. The structure is almost imperceptibly turned upside down. Then, after ten minutes, a break occurs. A kind of hunting music in the style of Richard Wagner is heard. In no other piece by the LJCO Barry Guy’s classical musical socialization is more evident. At the same time, a difference to the original becomes apparent in this version, because with the help of the muffler the trumpet sounds like a wah-wah guitar. The piece then continues as if at a gallop, the orchestra rushing mercilessly forward to almost sink into a maelstrom of collective improvisation before the intermediate theme is taken up again.

The final part of the piece is then introduced by a piano trio covering Guy’s romantic side. But the harmony is short-lived, as a crazy, completely free improvisation forms the final climax. This climax is again and again attacked by tutti parts of the orchestra, which keeps interspersing the main theme.

Ultimately, there’s an almost hypnotic effect. Harmos is a massive anthem in which free improvisations are layered over large orchestral melodic arcs. “My music is about the struggle for survival, and you have to feel that," Barry Guy said about his piece. As a kind of manifesto, it clarifies Barry Guy’s idea of composing: Structure and improvisation are set in tension with each other, wild solo and duo parts are put against the backdrop of the expressive, hymn-like melodic thematic material, which in its variations shapes the whole piece like a kind of heartbeat. Even today, after 33 years, Harmos is still a masterpiece. (By Martin Schray)


Colin Green said...

Martin, the performance of Harmos at Jazzfestival Schaffhausen in 2008 is available on DVD (not sure if I can spot you in the audience):

You can see the first 7 minutes or so here:,vid:HVtg2lQ5OQo

Harmos from Kraków in 2020 can be seen here:

There’s also a recording of Harmos from the Shaw Theatre, London, on March 22, 1991.

Stef said...

Thanks Colin, I added the Youtube video to the post.

Martin Schray said...

If you have the DVD, Colin, you can see me on the balcony upstairs in a couple of scenes ;-). Thanks for the link to the Krakow recording.