LONDON JAZZ COMPOSERS ORCHESTRA
The legendary London Jazz Composers Orchestra has been at the forefront of improvised music for over 30 years. The group features top European musicians from both the jazz and classical field. Highly acclaimed in North America and Europe, the pioneering orchestra is a Who's Who of virtuoso improvising musicians, exploring the relationship and tension between composed and improvised music and between new music and jazz. Director Barry Guy's compositions provide a structure for the musicians' explosive solo and collective improvisations
"LJCO is a band of soloists, and as such everybody's playing for their life. There are no passengers. The LJCO in concert is as much about physical force of sound as it is about musical information it's a portrait of the future."
From Intakt CD 041 "ODE"
texts by Barry Guy, Bert Noglik & John Corbett
25 years seems an absurdly long time to keep a band going, but then there have been exceptional attractions in doing so. Two abiding and powerful forces have promoted this continuity: The constantly evolving creativity of the musicians and my desire to research an expanded scenario for the large ensemble.
In those early days I was greatly encouraged by my composition professor Buxton Orr. Such was his interest in my ideas and crucially, his understanding of the impetus behind the musicians' experiments, he eventually directed the orchestra for several years. Also his work as composer, conductor and teacher prepared him for many weary hours coaxing the pieces into life.
"Ode" was my first score written to address the problems of integrating improvised music within a large tableau of symphonic proportions. The first performances produced glowing notices: "remarkable and impressive"; "technically awesome creation"; " a work of astonishing brilliance" and so on. There was also a great deal of adverse criticism "lunatic music"; "merciless noise"; "a long way from Satchmo, Benny, Bix and Duke, too long a way". Well yes, it meant to be a long way from those great pioneers, but some folks always miss the point!
At the time of writing "Ode", I was very conscious of possible misunderstandings that could surround such a composition, and in particular I was anxious to make clear that it was not "Third Stream Music" the superimposition of "Jazz" material into a classical ensemble. For me it was important to stress the language similarities, the symbiotic sound worlds of "Free Jazz" and contemporary compositional rationalities. I had in mind two solid foundations on which to build the music "Sound as energy" and "Energy's structure".
As a performer and composer, it seemed to me that the way to integrate the original music of improvising musicians with the composer's idea was to reach into the heart of what each discipline was setting out to achieve and to recognise specific parameters where a meeting point could be negotiated. The process was not so much intellectual more being guided be feelings and searching for the source of our collective creative spirits. The performer in me felt the intense heat and concentrated energy of improvising with colleagues. The process was spiritually awakening, communicating, inventing, learning, healing with a wide open space controlled by a wonderful balance of ego, humility and explosive creativity. Here was sound as energy.
Switching hats to the "composer", the first obvious point is that my body and brain are one and the same as the improviser. However, the parameters under consideration (naturally) take a different focus since musical space is being organised and prescribed according to the hoped for sonic result. "But why bother" is an often heard question "improvisation does not need such regulation". Well of course I agree(d) with that statement, but then a different kind of music would emerge if there was even a minimal ordering of events. Large free groupings in particular are prone to "ideas congestion" on the one hand and tentative negotiation on the other unless of course the ensemble had the luxury of constant rehearsals to understand the territory being investigated. The chances of coincidental simultaneities and co-ordinated movements are rare, so what better than a scenario of free and ordered space. In free jazz and improvised music there have been and no doubt will be, incredible moments where musical strands coalesce to produce a music that no composer can imagine. That is as it should be.These moments are unpredictable and surely not repeatable except for the knowledge that certain chemistries between players can create an energy flow that has always the possibility of transcending the sum of its parts. My second tenet therefore was to recognise these possibilities and juxtapose groupings (and solos) to produce an ebb and flow of musical tension. In other words, the energy suggested structure with the composed music being directly related to the individual musician's personal expression. After 25 years the prospect of writing a new piece still excites me with the same adrenaline flow when I think of the musicians that will join me on the stand to make the music live and breathe.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this short essay, aside from my own pre occupations with structural aspects of music, the continuity and support of the musicians has been my life line for holding the ensemble together. Whenever the future looked bleak there was always a concert that provided the energy to go onwards.
Personnel changes can be expected over so many years, but importantly there has been a solid core of musicians that have offered their own musical signatures to the orchestra from its inception which has essentially given the LJCO its sound.
These are March Charig, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford, Howard Riley and Paul Lytton. Elton Dean, John Stevens, Tony Oxley and Philipp Wachsmann should also be mentioned as long term collaborators. The very nature of the lives of the individual musicians has meant that each performance had to be a special event, and this boiling cauldron of explosive energy has given me the will to search for new ideas and places to play the music.
This new pressing of "Ode" includes the previously omitted Part VII, so at last the composition can be heard as a whole. Our recording specialist Peter Pfister has worked on the technical problems of bringing the original into the general aural picture. Trevor Watts' passionate solo alone is worth all of the efforts to bring this final part onto disc. Special thanks are due to Derek Bailey at Incus for allowing us to re-release "Ode". Thanks also to Patrik Landolt and Rosmarie A. Meier at Intakt for supporting the orchestra consistently, Maya Homburger our manager for transforming our working opportunities and of course Fabrikjazz, Rote Fabrik (Zurich) and all the supporters who have ensured our survival.
1 ... with a different musical rhetoric
After listening to it again: Almost a quarter of a century after it was created, "Ode" resembles a manifesto. The momentum of something beginning, the strength of something new, the bursting forth of a vocabulary never before heard in such a form, the onset of a musical language that goes beyond convention, i.e. beyond the standard pieces of Jazz and New Music. Twenty-five years ago it must have flamed up with revolutionary fire. Despite the years that have passed in the meantime, it has lost none of its effect. "Ode" still glows brightly. The late works of writers and composers have been examined again and again. It is about time that the magic of early pieces is given some attention early testimonies, though not yet formally perfect, nevertheless anticipating the characteristics of future works in terms of intention and impetus. This also applies to Barry Guy's "Ode", which was performed by the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, especially in view of the dialectics of spontaneity and form, process and structure. To a certain degree "Ode" contains the full range of possibilities, opening them up without becoming capricious and without paging through a dry catalogue of ways to play the music. In a note to his work, Barry Guy speaks of the musicians' ability to play with a "different musical rhetoric". The title ultimately refers to the choral aspect, to the emphasis, to how the audience is addressed.
2 ... only the start of something
"Ode" dates back to the beginning of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Movements 1,2 and 7 were recorded for BBC in 1970; Movement 4 was recorded in 1971 and Movement 6 for BBC in 1972. On the initiative of the "Musician's Cooperative" the first complete performance of "Ode" was held in London at Ronnie Scott's Club in 1971. It was followed by a presentation at the English Bach Festival in Oxford in 1972. The idea of a composers' orchestra, a large formation equally defined by the concepts of composition or intervention and by the improvised creative genius of the participating musicians, developed an amazing self-impetus through "Ode". It was this energy, which proved to be greater than the arithmetic sum of the participants, that encouraged Barry Guy and the orchestra to drive idea and practice even further. At the end of the cassette on which Movement 7 is recorded the recording of the concert on the Incus label from the Town Hall in Oxford from 22 April 1972 only contains parts 1 to 6 I can hear the voice of the announcer commenting on Barry Guy and his piece "Ode": "It is, he hopes, just the start of something." Later, Barry Guy spoke of the different phases of the orchestra: of a phase in which the compositions found their origin in the characteristic playing styles of the members, becoming more and more complicated, of a subsequent phase in which a rigid conception and the liberty of improvisation were increasingly balanced etc. "Ode" comes before these phases, marks the hour of birth, the initial phase, bears the seeds of all of the moments to come.
. We were all steering towards something yet unknown
It is not necessary to reconstruct Barry Guy's biographical background here. A brief reminder should suffice that his path ran from architecture to music, from the study of so-called "classical" and at the same time "older" and "newer" music in addition to Jazz and free improvisation on to a language of music that would be unthinkable without the above-mentioned experiences, but which can no longer be reduced to its sources. John Coltrane left his traces as well as Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Stravinsky and Penderecki, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis have all been named as an influence on Barry Guy. In connection with "Ode" he referred to how fascinated he was by Oliver Messiaen's "Chronochromie", which inspired him to reflect on the construction principles on antique odes. However the title and principle of construction bear at best only an associative relation to the dimensions of Messiaen and certainly only very vaguely to the chorus of Greek tragedies. The music seems to be equally far from the subtitles, which were named for painters and paintings of the surrealistic school: Part 1: "The End" Edgar Ende, 1931; Part 2: "Memory of the Future" Oscar Dominguez, 1939; Part 3: "Exact Sensibility" Oscar Dominguez, 1935; Part 4: "Indefinite Indivisibility" Yves Tanguy, 1942; Part 5: "According to the Laws of Chance" Jean Arp, 1917; Part 6: "Presence of Mind" René Magritte, 1958; Part 7: "Melancholy Departure" Georgio de Chirico, 1916. All of this hardly allows an association with concrete references to pictorialness, but rather indicates contours of a reality not yet seen or heard, at least not in this form. It corresponded with Barry Guy's adventures in the area of musical improvisation be it with Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, John Stevens, Tony Oxley, in ensembles with Bob Downes, in groups around Evan Parker, in trio formations with Howard Riley, in the group Iskra 1903 (at first with Barry Guy, Paul Rutherford and Derek Bailey) .... The unknown , Derek Bailey once said, cannot be reached with a compass. The atmosphere of the late Sixties and early Seventies, the questioning of social structures and the breaking open of encrusted traditions all seemed to give the musical "Sturm und Drang" processes more drive. Barry Guy wanted to melt his apparently disparate experiences together orchestrally in the medium of music, or , as he once explained, to make the paradox of joining together composition and improvisation productive. There was a further related motive for "Ode": Barry Guy wanted to point out the variety of musical styles that had developed in the English improvising music scene and present them, so to speak, under one roof. The different stylistic onsets proved to be a driving force, at the same time also creating a tension of collective effort that stretched to the breaking point. In a conversation with Rosmarie A. Meier and Patrik Landolt, Barry Guy admitted: "We were all steering towards something yet unknown. We were working towards it together as part of a process. We tried to clarify the details, to tie together the various musical disciplines. It was also about finding forms of a musical discourse in order to be able to coexist with the others. Through destroying the conventional patterns of communication, we wanted to achieve an even more intense communication."
4 .... to be able to feel free within the structure
In the liner notes accompanying the recording of "Ode" under the Incus label, Barry Guy complained that the orchestral aspects had remained statistically underdeveloped in relation to the enormous expansion and differentiation of the musical vocabulary through the instrumentalists of improvised music. He is not only referring to the Big Bands of Jazz that were caught in conventional traditions and idioms, but also to the works of New Music. Although it did pay attention to the structural aspects, New Music had largely left the specific individuality of the players unconsidered. What is new is char acterised on the one hand by using the language of music developed by modern Europeans and on the other by the creative potential of improvisers in the field of tension between concept and spontaneity. This should not be confused with a third way in the traditional sense of "third stream". Thanks to his studies in composition, Barry Guy was able to organise and structure what he played with his improvising colleagues, forming "Ode" into a manifesto. The orchestral dimension literally cried for a composer if the playing was not to end in endless passages of power or overflowing surfaces of sound. At the same time, the variety of individual voices proved to be a kind of palette that challenged creative fantasy. When he writes for an ensemble or an orchestra with "classical" musicians, Barry Guy once said, he imagines a certain sound that he wants to achieve. For the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, on the other hand, he sees faces. Even in this piece, which is far from Jazz, Barry Guy follows the principle of orchestral thought that was developed during the history of Jazz: Taking into consideration the mentality, the personality, the stylistic characteristics of the soloists. He lets them inspire him without reducing his total concept. He challenges the individual, but does not force them to deny their own characteristics. Ekkehard Jost described the complex working relationship of the orchestra: "put together from the imagination and competent craftsmanship of the composer Guy;the notions that he forms of the musical characters of his partners;and the performances that these then give reacting to the events of his imagination." Very clearly Barry Guy and the participating musicians are no longer interested in provocatively standing out from the encrusted traditions of Jazz and /or New Music, but are more concerned with a principle of construction. The analogy to social structures and processes was in the air. Barry Guy speaks of the composition as a "social framework", for the participating musicians; and he accentuates that he wants to design the score so freely that all of them can actually "feel free within the structure". This was not always the case in later phases of the Orchestra. The solution to the paradox or the insight gained in the process of the dialectic of composition and improvisation, however, can only be thought about and brought about as a process. "Ode" made this problem transparent and at the same time held it up so it could be clearly seen: in the acoustic room, in the cultural landscape, in society.
5. With the composition "Ode" I found a first solution
In this piece density does not necessarily mean tutti. Barry Guy works with the most diverse gradations and overlapping of density and degrees. He introduces "solo groups", which to a certain extent negotiate between the soloist and the orchestra, confronting them with each other as the concertino and the full orchestra do in the concerto grosso. And he uses all these means undogmatically, he combines, complicates and untangles, he also allows stylistic varia from reminders of melodic ballad improvisations to a feeling of strict dodecaphonic playing, from individual and collective bursts of energy to comparatively calm surfaces of sound, from associations with "classical" music to Jazz gestus. The latter however, only appears very occasionally. This is certainly connected with the fact that in this phase Barry Guy and most of the musicians gathered around him were greatly concerned with disassociating themselves from the image and idiom of Jazz. Only in the final movement, Part 7 which is entitled "Coda", did Barry Guy attempt a compromise with Jazz's Big Band traditions. Significantly enough , this part was left out of the Incus production of "Ode". In the liner notes Barry Guy indicated that he was not satisfied with the result, that he had asked too much of the soloists who had otherwise worked themselves so well into the language of the other parts and that several "blunders" had occurred. Nonetheless he regretted, that "Coda", which contained good solo and ensemble passages and had been a success with the audience, had not been documented. Ekkehard Jost quoted a critique by Derek Jewell that appeared on 2 May 1971 in the "Sunday Times" where he stated: "This wonderful 'Coda' in Guy's piece, in which Bernard Living's revolutionary alto saxophone and a blindingly beautiful bass trio stood in the foreground, was a conclusive plea for the cause of the Jazz avant-garde ....". As Barry Guy had conceived just this part as a compromise, one cannot help but confirm a misunderstanding in the reception of it. However, from a different perspective "Coda" can be considered a part that exactly because of its contradictions does not take a back seat to the others in terms of brisance. Once the disassociation from Jazz had taken place and did not have to be emphasised all the time, the exchange of views between the creative means and the means of expression in Jazz once again became attractive.
Although "Ode" is fascinating, especially because of its tonal dimension which, in lack of a different or more succinct expression, could be called "European", Barry Guy was concerned at the same time with the model of structure and with a model of communication: "I was looking for possibilities of combining the contrary moments of freedom and control with each other. With the composition of "Ode" I found a first solution". And so "Ode" is still shining a quarter of a century after its creation similar and yet at the same time also different to "Globe Unity" with the Orchestra around Alexander von Schlippenbach, to "Machine Gun" with Peter Brötzmann's octet, to "European Echoes" with the ensemble around Manfred Schoof, to the recordings with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra around Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. Or, to risk a comparison and carry it further, to John Coltrane's "Ascension" or Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz", to the significant works of Anton Webern or Yannis Xenakis. "Ode", in short, falls in line and out of the frame: a milestone and a manifesto. In the London Jazz Composers Orchestra the music has freed itself from the subaltern mediator. New productive powers were kindled by the attempt to resolve the paradox. Thus, the sound of "Ode" is at the same time highly personal and yet goes beyond the individual, the concrete expression of a phase of uprise, to a certain degree timeless, characterised by systematic intellect and yet full of sensuality.
That the London Jazz Composers Orchestra has survived for a quarter of a century despite unavoidable crises and continues to stride towards the future, that seven of the founding members (Marc Charig, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Lytton and of course Barry Guy himself) are still part of it, underlines the forbearance expressed in the quotation that the whole thing is the start of something.
(Translation: Susan Kaufmann-Guyer)
"... where the composition could coexist alongside the soloists, both in concept and the resultant sound"
Barry Guy on LJCO, 1972
When I first heard about the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, the word "composer" stood out like wings on a pig. With a cast that has included Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald, Paul Lytton and Evan Parker, it seemed more like and improvisers' convention than a composers' orchestra. With the benefit of a few years consideration, I have now realised that the moniker has two meanings:
Globe Unity Orchestra: Four years before "Ode", Alexander von Schlippenbach's first stabs at unifying the globe set an obvious context for LJCO's emergence. The original attempt to bring Europe's free contribution into such massive orchestration, when it started GUO had more musically in common with the LJCO than it did by the time the two bands met for their monumental duel, "Double Trouble". Whenever I get a good blast of Globe Unity, it reminds me of the pure power at the core of LJCO.
Brotherhood Of Breath: Remembered more for their infectious, joy-filled vamp-tunes than their (quite extensive) movement into denser areas of orchestral abstraction, the Brotherhood nevertheless seems an appropriate connection in decoding LJCO's existence and significance in the unfolding of new approaches to big-band. McGregor's cband was capable of the same mixture of sweetness and sting so masterfully manipulated by LJCO.
The Experimental Band: Muhal Richard Abrams led this never-recorded "rehearsal band" for a decade in Chicago, exploring possibilities of scoring for large-scale improvising corps. Indeed, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, had a requirement for new members at one time that they had to lead a big group through their own material. Abram's later orchestra also bears comparison, especially with Guy's more recent scores.
John Coltrane Ascension seems an inescapable citation: 11-piece band, 1965, teasing borders of thematic composition and expressionistic, explosive improvisations. Trane retained the jazz-solo format within gargantuan-blow framework, which meant he could incorporate voices (like Freddie Hubbard's) that might seem incongruous or impossible. LJCO too, uses this inclusive logic.
Charles Mingus: How to break up the orchestra into smaller subgroups and treat the orchestra as a space for multiple reconfigurations? Along with his huge impact on Barry as a player, Baron Mingus's approach to writing for the big-band is decisive, and his long, sectional, storytelling pieces set another corner of LJCO's stage.
Sun Ra Arkestra: How did Ra manage to keep musicians with such individual voices and leadership potential as John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick in Arkestra so long? Nourishing material, gradually changing compositional strategies, and, for the soloists, lots of SPACE. Look back at the members of LJCO on "Ode" who are still there today: Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Lytton and Marc Charig. A family that plays together ....
Duke Ellington: The inevitable, over emphasised, but still somehow true party-line on Duke's writing for targeted band members is also true of LJCO. It is the unique vocabularies (often "extended" vocabs, just like the Ellingtonian's were) of the participants in this orchestra that give it its specific sound and that take it on its charted (and uncharted) course. But to say that a composer writes music with particular players in mind is a hazy statement at best, in need of clarification.
Around a table on the day after Nickelsdorf 95, the three-day festival at which LJCO has played twice, once with guest soloist Marilyn Crispell, I sit in casual conversation with Guy, Lytton and pianist Georg Gräwe. Impressed especially by the meeting with Crispell, I express my amazement at Guy's ability to write music that inspires great soloing and strong subgroup improvisation. The discussion meanders in to Jungle Band compari usons. Lytton offers that the idea that Ellington wrote only for certain players is a badly misunderstood cliché, that Duke composed great music regardless of intended player, inspiring for any soloist. Barry concurs. Lytton wonders, what will happen later in the year when Guy's most personalised, detailed depiction of the 17 members of LJCO "Portraits", will be played by a completely different band in Sweden.
Guy smiles and raises his eyebrows in joint uncertainty. It seems to me that this specific breed of big-band composer writes with several things in mind: 1) the instrument and instrumental role (foreseeable and predictable possibilities); 2) the demands of compositional strategy of the particular piece (specific musical context); 3) the player in question (unstable and often unpredictable stylist). Guy has, from "Ode" on, used compositional materials to push the playelrs, to elicit special performances from musicians with special abilities.
A sense of drama, of unfolding or expedition, is integral to Guy's concept and it fits the members of LJCO like a glove. Guy has adamantly explored the twin dialectics of written vs. improvised and arrangement vs. solo, and when a player like Rutherford uses a giant orchestral swell as a diving platform into a solo, anticipating and toying with a string of punch-chords, and finally settling elegantly into a tide pool of clusters that follows, the negotiation of the very relationship between soloist and orchestra belongs to the player, not to the composer whose name is beneath the title. That's a form of radical redistribution of authority freedom, if you want that doesn't go out of style because Ellington used it sixty years ago.
One last thought on writing for improvisers. The way some people talk about Duke's style of writing for his players goes something like this: He knew what they could do, knew their special tricks, their technical innovations, their signature licks, and wrote music with places for them to do their things. A spin through his 1926 version of "East St. Louis Toodle-O" might confirm this Bubber Miley's growling, talking trumpet mutations seem the only possible answer to Ellington's compositional query. But Ellington made a place for exceptional players to play exceptionally; he didn't try to think for them, he featured them. In the same manner. Guy doesn't try to anticipate the extreme liberties that players like Paul Lytton and Alan Tomlinson, for instance, might take during their LJCO solos: far out, on a limb, they know it's their charge not to fall off, to somehow come back to the trunk of the tree.
I've heard a few downtown New Yorkers Elliott Sharp and John Zorn, specifically discuss writing for musicians who they know so well they can predict what they'll do. In fact, I've played structured improvisations designed "with me in mind" and found it strangely constricting. The art of writing for improvisers, in my opinion, lies not in guessing what they'll do or drawing on their gimmicks, but in composing music that inspires them to do something you couldn't imagine. This practice thus requires the humility not to know; it means you have to believe in something unknown, in something as fragile as improvisation. At Nickelsdorf, listening to Paul Dunmall take an emotionally charged, absolutely jubilant, free jazz tenor solo over the orchestra, I'm sure that Barry Guy is one of the most gifted and humble composers of this variety the world has yet known.