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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Barry Guy Blue Shroud Band - all this, this here (Fundacja Sluchaj, 2023)

By Stuart Broomer

There is nothing quite like one of Barry Guy’s major works – each a broad tapestry, sometimes including a wealth of language, always a wealth of music, a skein of cultural references (this one touching on the poetry of Samuel Beckett and haiku as well as a welter of musics and free improvisation). Guy spent decades as a bassist in ancient music ensembles while also being among the most eminent of contemporary improvisers, and his large ensemble works speak to that unique experience and skill set. Guy came of age when large-scale jazz composition was a significant activity in England (typified perhaps by Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier and Kenny Wheeler), at the same time that Guy was active in free improvisation with John Stevens, Derek Bailey, Paul Rutherford and Evan Parker. In his large-scale works, Guy is a master at integrating musical styles and methodologies, often making things thought antithetical become complementary.

In late 2014, I was on assignment covering Jazz in Autumn in Krakow. Organized by Marek Winiarski, founder of Not Two Records, it’s usually a festival with a special plan. A large ensemble (repeat leaders have included Guy, Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and the late Peter Brötzmann) gathers to develop and rehearse an expansive piece during the day, meanwhile performing in small sub-ensembles during the evenings in the basement club Alchemie. At the week’s conclusion the large ensemble work is performed in a concert hall. In 2014, it was Guy and the ensemble that has since become The Blue Shroud Band, named for the work that they were then developing in Krakow. I was fortunate enough to attend the band’s rehearsals during the later stages of their preparation. It was an extraordinary collection of musicians, gathered from across the spectrum of Guy’s associations, from baroque ensembles to free improvisation and several, like Guy himself and partner and violinist Maya Homburger, adept in both of those worlds. (My detailed account of the group’s first work, Blue Shroud, is available in my Ezz-thetics column at for March 2015.

A similar process is behind “all this this here”, though the title alludes to a phrase from Samuel Beckett’s final poem, “what is the word”. What is perhaps most immediately impressive, testimony to the esteem in which Guy and his work is held by his collaborators, is that only two personnel changes have occurred in the band since 2014. Tuba and serpent player Michel Godard has been replaced by tubist Marc Unternährer and trumpeter Peter Evans by Percy Pursglove. Otherwise, the remarkable personnel is identical.

Along with Guy and Homburger, there’s the Greek singer Savina Yannatou,Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández, violist Fanny Paccoud and Irish guitarist Ben Dwyer. There’s the stellar Northern European saxophone quartet of Torben Snekkestad (soprano and tenor), Michael Niesemann (alto saxophone, oboe and the baroque oboe d’amore), Per Texas Johansson (tenor saxophone and clarinet) and Julius Gabriel (baritone and soprano saxophones), as well as the percussion duo of Ramón López and Lucas Niggli, capable of everything from the explosively subtle and the subtly explosive.

The work will brook no easy summary. Its ultimate effect is not merely a matter of scale but the subtle grace of all of its individual components, its interactions between text and music, the individual realizations of voice and instrument turning score into sounds and also improvising within the context of this expansive form, whether individually or collectively.

It’s difficult to absorb or encapsulate, let alone describe all this this here : whether it’s the texts that Guy has selected – primarily that poem from Samuel Beckett – or the myriad ways in which Yannatou has invested them with extraordinary intensity, light and meaning, intensity, light and meaning that cannot be categorized by meanings beyond their aptness and intensity. The same can be said of pianist Agusti Fernandez’s many moments, whether profound or glittering, or the performances of the saxophonists: Per Texas Johannson, on tenor brings a focussed articulation and daunting force to “Time Thing 1”, playing with an oracular depth of chaotic energy that’s matched by all the synchronized and exploding bits of the scored ensemble.

Like Sun Ra, no easy or likely comparison, Guy draws dedication from the members of the Blue Shroud Band. Certainly, there are the commonplace explanations: collegiality; shared technical excellence; mastering complex materials together. However, there’s something more as well: the chance to make music that hasn’t been made before or elsewhere and won’t likely be made anywhere else by anyone else ever, and yet it’s music that feels central to so much experience, common and uncommon, an assemblage of meaning-rich sounds that have never met before and might mean anything and everything.


Shaun said...

For me, an absolute masterpiece. Best thing I heard all last year. Why this hasn't been given the 'five star' accolade is beyond me.

Richard said...

totally agree with Shaun, I had it as number 2 on my year-end list, and I haven't changed my opinion of it at all since.

Colin Green said...

The blog abandoned the star rating system some years ago. Stuart’s review is a sufficient accolade.

Shaun said...

No, it hasn't. It retains the 5-star rating for exceptional releases. The last one was on 24 April (John Butcher +13).

Colin Green said...

I didn’t realise that. How odd. I’d understood it had been dropped, but it would seem 5-star rating pops up every so often, at least from those reviewers who are in favour of using it. Clearly, I don’t pay close enough attention to these things.

I don’t know Stuart’s views on the subject of 5-star rating but your sense of injustice at his failure might be well-founded.

Paul said...

When it was decided to drop the star rating, we still needed a way to mark exceptional records in order to be listed on the site (see Five Star Albums button in the to menu). So, the five stars was kept for this reason.

Colin Green said...

I now see "Five Star Albums" on the menu, and clicking that I also see that Stuart has given some albums five stars over the last couple of years.

I'm afraid that for me it's the content of the review that counts and following through with any music links. Perhaps I should give greater weight to the presence, or absence, of those stars.