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Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Festival 5
By Ken Waxman
Brawny and gritty, Glasgow, Scotland`s largest city has been a shipbuilding, trading and manufacturing powerhouse since the Industrial Revolution. At the same time the grey northern port has had a long-established aesthetic side, characterized by the often imitated Arts and Crafts movement designs and structures of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928).
This blend of power and passion was reflected November 29 to December 1 as the city’s 24-member Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) celebrated its 10th anniversary and 5th annual festival with performances at the city’s downtown Centre for Contemporary Art by the whole band and various subsets; other Scottish improvisers; and guests including inventive saxophonist Evan Parker, irrepressible vocalist Maggie Nicols and polymath George Lewis utilizing trombone and computer.
Like Mackintosh’s architecture, which took into account the city’s unique character, “Tractatus”, Lewis’ GIO showpiece, was composed to reflect the GIO’s talents. Flowing with a swing undercurrent, the sequences moved the narrative weight from section to section with equality, encompassing bright and sprightly pulls and strokes from the six-piece string section; drummer Stu Brown’s inventive hand patting; flutter-tongued vamps from trumpeter Robert Henderson; a steady piano ostinato from Gerry Rossi; plus Nicols and vocalist Nicola MacDonald yelping and gibbering. Guided, rather than conducted by Lewis, the polyphonic piece allowed audacious exposure of varying orchestral colors, creating excitement through contrast not discord.
Even more site-specific was GIO guitarist George Burt’s “Three Envelopes for E. M.”, an extended suite which placed in an orchestral setting the recitation of translated poems by Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Glasgow’s former poet laureate, by actor Tam Dean Burn. Bald-headed Burn’s gesticulating interpretation of the poems in guttural Scots-Gaelic was given particular weight by repetitive tremolo chords from the massed band members. Angled plucks and wood slaps from Burt plus stop-time pressure from bassist Armin Sturm and near Aylverian cries from tenor saxophonist Graeme Wilson helped convey Morgan’s street-wise toughness, while passages that harmonized three basses and one cello with Emma Roche’s peeping flute work underscored a certain delicacy, even if the words were incomprehensible for non-Glaswegians.
Great fun for the audience and musicians, but less substantial musically was “Some I Know, Some I Don’t” another GIO-commission from Jim O’Rourke. A Fluxus-lite game piece, the concept involved each musician following the directions printed on each playing card he or she picked. Although episodes where Lewis cited haggis as his favorite food; MacDonald exited briefly and returned with drinks for herself, Burt and pedal-point-line-emphasizing guitarist Neil Davidson; or Nicols cunningly using a cell phone to converse from across the orchestral semi-circle with GIO artistic director/alto saxophonist Raymond MacDonald’s cell were charmingly quirky, those players who intensified the sonic qualities of the commands fared much better. Cellist Peter Nicolson for instance defiantly scratched his strings to curtail a faux jazzy interlude from the two guitarists; Brown sourced unusual pings from his segmented cymbal tower; a small horizontal board among the strings helped pull ukulele-like tones from Catriona MacKay’s harp; while Lewis improvised using only his slide detached from the rest of his horn.
When it came to smaller groupings, nothing could surpass a set by pianist Alex von Schlippenbach Trio. Besides the hard-handed pianist, apt contributions came from relaxed, prepossessing drummer Paul Lovens, and endlessly inventive saxophonist Parker, who also duetted memorably with Lewis’ computer and diffidently become part of the GIO reed section at other times. Forty years of playing together means that trio cohesion was almost immediate; within five minutes the pianist’s percussive chording and Monkish asides, the drummer’s cymbal clatter and subtle length-wise stick rubs and Parker’s circular-breathed seemed as inevitable as tides on the River Clyde that bisects Glasgow. Surprises were present nonetheless: von Schlippenbach’s progress sometimes included left-handed note chopping and stride piano allusions, while the tenor saxophonist’s flutter-tonguing could be as melodic as it was multiphonic.
That ad-hoc meetings can be as potent musically as the Schlippenbach Trio’s lengthy collaboration was also proven conclusively by some of the GIO’s duo and trio linkages as well as Nicols performance with Roche and bassist Una McGlone of The Rope & Duck Company. Roche’s staccato chirps or flat-line runs united disparate strategies as McGlone used two bull fiddles to catch up with Nicols’ unpredictable vocalese. Lying one bass on its side and distorting its tone with an electronic pickup, she smacked a mallet, a wire-brush or a triangle against the strings for distinctive textures; col legno pops and thick resonating stops. When she turned to accompanying the others with other upright bass strokes, Nicols became a show by herself. The vocalist’s split-second timing allowed her to slide from keening melancholy to Bedlam-like laughter instantaneously, using lyric soprano interjections and phrase and syllable mixing used to create rational-sounding tall tales that were more gibberish than Gaelic. If that wasn’t enough occasionally she kept the pace moving by creating her own version of the Highland fling, encompassing modern ballet-like steps and foot stomps.
Adding to the localized musical gestalt was a set by the newly formed 12-piece Shetland Improvisers Orchestra (SIO) which drove 400-plus miles to play at the festival. Hailing from a Scottish island so remote that the second language is Norn rather than Gaelic, the SIO’s music was closest to jazz as anything in the festival, especially when front-man Jeff Merrifield put aside his trumpet to produce some blood-curdling New Thing tenor saxophone screams, horn held aloft. Blending primitivist recorder timbres and hand-percussion interludes with low-key Bill Dixon-like orchestrations, electric fiddle sawing and soprano saxophone cries, the band later honored the late saxophonist Lol Coxhill with a melancholy slow-motion piece; touched on prog-rock and parceled out brief improvisations to matched duos from the ensemble.
Organized after a proselytizing visit by MacDonald and Burt a couple of months before the festival, the SIO could be the first of other improvising ensembles formed elsewhere in the country. If this happens, and the already innovative GOP keeps evolving at the same impressive pace as it has over the previous decade, Scotland may soon as be celebrated for its improvising musicians as much as for its ballad singers and distinctive bagpipers.
--For The New York City Jazz Record January 2013
January 6, 2013
Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra
Improcherto (for HB)
Iorram GN 82
Waving the Saltire for musical if not geographic liberation in the northern part of the United Kingdom is the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO), which over the past decade has established itself as a potent force for free sounds. This CD finds the 18 piece ensemble – plus two ringers – exploring the concepts of graphic scores and conduction. Embracing the idea during an almost 40-minute sequence conceived of by GIO member and guitarist George Burt the ensemble wends its way through tricky section work and in the process honors the memory of Barbados-born Harry Beckett (1935-2010), a potent force in earlier British Jazz who straddled the divide between big band Jazz and Free Improvising – as does the GIO.
Veteran London saxophonists Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill are then two ringers here. But their presence is crucial since over the years both worked with Beckett. At the same time the arrangement is such that the GIO avoids emulating the mode of the slightly older London Improvisers Orchestra in which Parker and Coxhill regularly play. More crucially despite the instrument-affiliation of the dedicatee, Improcherto (for HB) is no brass showcase. Trumpeter Robert Henderson and trombonist Chris Barclay are the GIO’s only brass players and neither has an extended solo.
Instead Improcherto (for HB) is built up from a unique combination of juddering strings, impressionistic flute passages and vamping harmonies. With three percussionists and many horns framing his theme variations, the circular breathing and pressured vibrato from Parker’s tenor saxophone is appropriately situated. Following some cursory call-and-response, and as percussive ruffs and aviary-like background cries swell to a carefully paced crescendo, the narrative is handed off to soprano saxophonist Coxhill. His mercurial solo is soon breached, first by Henderson’s edgy triplets, then by single string strums from guitarist Neil Davidson and eventually by piano comping that introduces Raymond MacDonald’s reed variation. From that point on, MacDonald’s flutter-tonguing turns agitato as it’s mixed with insistent cello splays, staccato brass sways and clarinet peeps. A steadying pulse from bassists Una MacGlone and Armin Sturm hold the course while the other conducted sections melt into one another leading to a widening polyphonic climax. Pulling back slightly, the popping percussion, rasgueado guitar licks and reed snorts make room for Parker’s bravura improving that somehow manages to combine altissimo multiphonics with echoes of “Body and Soul”. Presaged by heraldic trumpet lines, the final variant bounces among woodwind key percussion, spiccato string spikes and drum rolls. The ending consists of vanishing yet lyrical flute blows.
While the specifics of the composition’s organic relationship to a graphic-score-directed concerto or its allusion to the skills of a departed trumpet stylist may a bit murky, the GIO proves itself a praiseworthy ensemble. Operating at the same exalted level as other contemporary improvising orchestras, the band indicates that more outstanding music lies in its future.
Track Listing: 1. Improcherto (for HB)
Personnel: Robert Henderson (trumpet); Chris Barclay (trombone); Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone); Raymond MacDonald (soprano and alto saxophones); Evan Parker (tenor saxophone); Graeme Wilson (baritone saxophone); John Burgess (bass clarinet); Emma Roche, Liene Rozite and Matthew Studdert-Kennedy (flute); Gerry Rossi (piano); George Burt and Neil Davidson (guitar); Nikki Moran (viola); Peter Nicholson (cello); Una MacGlone and Armin Sturm (bass); Rick Bamford and Stuart Brown (drums) and Fritz Welch (percussion)
September 1, 2012
Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core
Nearly ubiquitous internationally – or so it often appears – keyboardist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura are as likely to be found playing with their American combos or big bands as with a variety of other groups located in their Tokyo hometown.
Open to more musical experiences then those where they call all the shots, husband-and-wife Tamura and Fujii, who plays piano, synthesizer and accordion, may join other groups for short or extended periods. These superior CDs, recorded two years apart, demonstrate their adaptability. Cities results from a two-day Glasgow gig that joined the two with a trio of Scottish improvisers –saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, guitarist Neil Davidson and drummer Tom Bancroft – all of whom are as omnipresent in that city’s music scene as Tamura and Fujii are internationally.
Stone Shift is another matter. Together since the beginning of the century, saxophonist Larry Ochs and dual drummers Donald Robinson and Scott Amendola extend the textures of their Sax & Drumming Core band by adding Tamura and Fujii on a regular basis. Ochs, who wrote all the tunes here, now has more colors for his compositional palate, while making the band name slightly vestigial.
This is especially obvious on the title tune, subtitled “For Kurosawa” – doubtlessly honoring the Japanese director. After the two percussionists move spectrally across the sonic space with thumping patterns reminiscent of Taiko drumming, Tamura’s whinnying tremolos appear in double counterpoint with Ochs’ harsh, near-swallowed reed textures. Fujii plays a dual role – something that may have appealed to Kurosawa – alternating skittering synthesizer pedal point with organically thick piano runs. As the tune slithers along, and both of her keyboards move in a portamento fashion, strangled cries and capillary growls drop from the trumpet, matched by thin, almost-Asiatic repetitive trills from Ochs’ soprano sax. Finally the horns encapsulate their variations by intermingling squeezed reed chirps and burbling brass cries. All the while rough cymbal echoes, rattling snares and spacious rebound from Robinson and Amendola shore up the bottom. Finally, a wash of near-vocal synthesizer textures complete the aural picture.
The introductory “Across From Over”, which clocks in at more than 19 minutes, delineates all this and more, as the resonating cracks, ruffs, slaps and retorts from the dual drummers begin to suggest African and Native American percussion patterns. One man echoes Pharoah Sanders’ percussion-heavy forays of the 1960s, while the other suggests the Universal Indians motifs of the Ayler brothers’ percussionists of around the same time. In fact, intentionally or not, spluttering split tones at the top of Ochs’ range ejaculated with a tough tenor-styled thickness recall Albert Ayler’s soloing, while the trumpeter’s sluicing triplets and bent, whinnying notes are reminiscent of Donald Ayler’s limited style. “Across From Over” shouldn’t be confused with a period-piece salute however. Fujii’s two-handed synthesizer flutters and swift piano glissandi are definitely of this century though, while the tactile press rolls, breakneck ruffs, cross-patterning flams and polyrhythmic time dislocation from the drummers confirms the CD’s 21st Century origin.
Also very much in this century, and a testament to Scottish improvisers new-found sophistication, is Cities. Using only acoustic instruments – except for electric guitar – the nine tracks confirm how seamlessly Fujii’s and Tamura’s skills blend with those of others. Overall, the only downside here would be that the keyboardist’s familiarity with the inner working of the piano and its strings are such that it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint guitarist Davidson’s contributions in the mix. A further anomaly is that a burst of applause at the end of one track is the only one heard – an odd juxtaposition for a session recorded at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts.
Davidson’s below-the-bridge sweeps and angular picking are obvious on “Two Blocks East” where they join with Fujii’s walking bass line and peal point pressure. As her patterning becomes thicker and louder, it’s contrapuntally challenged by reed bites from MacDonald and tremolo tongue motions from Tamura. Bancroft’s drumming has already accelerated from gentle sand-dance-like strokes to thick, resounding thumps in order to match the saxman’s masticated tones. Now the narrative foreshortens to make room for cawing reed lines, vibrating trumpet flourishes, guitar string snaps, pummeled piano runs plus hard ruffs and strokes from the drums. Turning moderato, repeated trumpet measures bring the band back to earth.
Weighty and frail timbres figure into other instant compositions, such as “Oxygenitis” and “Overload”. On the former Fujii’s sharp key stabs accompany light-toned flutters and lyrical vibrations from MacDonald, who almost sounds like a modernistic, Glaswegian Stan Getz here. Furthermore, his delicately tongued alto work includes constructing a buzzing obbligato to Tamura’s whirring grace notes. Then as Bancroft ruffles his drum tops, the pianist splatters note textures and yanks jagged asides from the instrument’s nether regions. More of the same, “Overload” features Fujii’s heavy chording moving crab-like on one line, as MacDonald and Tamura follow a parallel path in double counterpoint. The saxophonist irregularly vibrates and squeaks, while the trumpeter wah-wahs. This ends with both cascading notes. While Davidson’s occasional plinks add an additional sound layer, Bancroft’s rebounds and rumbles keep the improvisational edifice balanced.
Throughout these and the other tracks, the quintet runs through a litany of high and low frequency reed slurs, kinetic chording, internal piano string plinks, brass mouthpiece kisses and any manner of metronomic or broken-time strategies from the drummer. The cumulative results range from shrill to smooth, but few sounds are less than remarkable.
Extending their range and collaborations further, Tamura and Fujii prove that a mixed Japanese-Scottish session is only a bit les memorable than one featuring simpatico Japanese and American players.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Stone: 1. Across From Over 2. Abstraction Rising 3. Stone Shift (for Kurosawa)
Personnel: Stone: Natsuki Tamura (trumpet); Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones); Satoko Fujii (piano and synthesizer) and Donald Robinson and Scott Amendola (drums)
Track Listing: Cities: 1. Navigation 2. Parallel Shapes 3. Overload 4. A Strange Prediction 5. Two Blocks East 6. Into the Diversion 7. Oxygenitis 8. How did I get Here 9. Euphoria
Personnel: Cities: Natsuki Tamura (trumpet); Raymond MacDonald (alto and soprano saxophones); Satoko Fujii (piano); Neil Davidson (guitar) and Tom Bancroft (drums)
February 16, 2010