La Pieuvre

Ellipse
Helix LX 002

The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra with Barry Guy

Falkirk

FMR CD 168-i0706

Ever since American Butch Morris introduced the concept of using “conduction” to help improvising ensembles express musical ideas without formalistic structures, the model has been tested over the past two decades by a variety of ensembles in different parts of the world.

Although there are those who might question just how different “conduction” is from a Count Basie band head arrangement or a one of Charles Mingus’ scores that was transmitted orally to his sidemen, the theory appears to be helpful in allowing bands of 20 or so musicians to create notable semi-improvised/semi-composed structures. Falkirk and Ellipse provide two of the more impressive, recent examples of this trend, and also illustrate by their differences how nothing involved with Free Music is accepted dogma.

For a start, the 19-piece The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) is directed by a guest, British bassist Barry Guy – who also solos on the nearly 65½ minute CD – along with his wife, baroque violinist Maya Homburger. Founder of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) in the early 1970s, Guy has years of experience in motivating large groups of improvisers.

Unlike the long-established LJCO, made up of many of Britain and the Continent’s most accomplished Free Jazzers however, the GIO is a more amorphous proposition. Only formally constituted in 2002, members of the orchestra come from jazz, contemporary classical, avant-pop and sound art backgrounds. It’s a tribute to Guy’s skills as an orchestrator – and the adaptive talents of GIO members – that the group is able to create a notable version of Guy’s “Witch Gang Game” – plus a shorter improvisation – after only a week of workshops and rehearsals with the composer. Consisting of an interpretation of panels from Scottish artist Alan Davis’ graphics, “Witch Gang Game” is no traditional score.

Similarly, La Pieuvre’s nearly 68-minute “Ellipse” has a comparable thematic genesis. Inspired by bandleader/guitarist Olivier Benoit and choreographer David Flahaut, the idea is for each musician to use the beats of his or her own heart as individual metronomes to establish a polyrhythmic response to the evolving six-note theme “conductated” by Benoit. Based in Lille, France, the 23 members of La Pieuvre (“octopus” in English) came from as diverse backgrounds as the GIO members – rock, Free Jazz, contemporary classical music and electronics. Together since 1999, and again akin to the GIO, the group has evolved different programs and played with a variety of guest soloists. On his own Benoit has also recorded with the likes of alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and pianist Sophie Angel.

Back in Scotland, “special guests” Homburger and Guy receive no special consideration from the other musicians and are well-integrated within the performing unit. From the beginning of this polyphonic treatment of “Witch Gang Game” as a matter of fact, the ricocheting cymbals and constant rumbles from the drums of Mike Travis plus the dissonant honks, squeals, squeaks and split tones from the five reed players are more prominent than the guests’ contributions.

From the margins to the centre, the piece evolves with hocketing textures and murky glossolalia from the horns snaking among screeching triplets from the brass as well as the hissing, striated fripples of flutists Emma Roche and Matthew Studdert-Kennedy and Nick Fells’ shakachi. Only occasionally is the dense, intertwined output interrupted for a wooly, extended bass clarinet solo from John Burgess or wordless vocal obbligatos from Nicola MacDonald.

A wider and more spacious secondary theme borne by spiccato strings makes its appearance mid-way through the piece, although it’s almost overwhelmed by a near-symphonic vamp from the slurping and snorting horns. Adumbrating a distinctive crescendo that slides from andante to adagio, a resonating phrasing from trombonist George Murray introduces a stop-time, Swing-like section complete with bomb-dropping drumming and walking basses.

Resembling the strategies of Scottish-born vocalist Maggie Nicols, MacDonald’s verbal asides are a compendium of cackles, giggles, cries and caws in a mixture of English and Gaelic. Throughout, her verbal elaboration evolves above undulating connective choruses, vibrating multiphonics and blaring brass.

Eventually reaching a climax of suddenly piqued and undulating passages, the cacophony gradually subsides as first the parlando vocalizing then the shaking continuously breathed horn section’s tones slowly fades. A further variation, characterized by isolated chromatic slurs, brays, mumbles and swipes, leads to a finale of sliding reeds and brass plus the drummer expanding his backbeat rhythms to foreground rebounds, pressured slaps and reverberations, leaving a coda of a single cymbal smack remain hanging in the air.

Meanwhile, as the verisimilitude of braying, snorting, growling and rumbling instruments produce a high frequency electrical storm of instrumental textures, the texture of “Ellipse” is initially so opaque that it suggests a cardiac artery blockage rather than a pulse.

However like displaying the results of a chest X-Ray, the unfolding licks and sibilant sprints from three guitarists bring the next variation into aural focus – louder and more united. Piano plinks, brass slurs and saxophone smears languidly introduce the theme in broken octaves and soon the associated pulses are evident, ascending to thick, tension-filled phrases without release or respite.

Before the main motif is developed in the defining third variation, pitches and themes are distributed among several non-connective instruments. As the reeds and brass move in parallel broken octaves, high-pitched shrilling from vocalist Marie Richard is isolated as the entire performance is supported by blacksmith-like thwacks from drummers Nicholas Chachignot and Peter Orins.

Like Guy’s understated work with the GIO, Benoit’s impressionistic arranging skill is brought in into boldest relief in the third variation. With the repetitive percussion strokes nearly overpowering, it takes a few seconds to realize that almost simultaneously a contrapuntal response of slippery, slurry horn breaths can be heard, repeatedly playing a single, metronomic phrase. Polyphonic and polytonal, the shifting timbres move from one section to the others, not as call-and-response, but splayed and hocketing. While the percussion pedal point almost never varies, the response from the other instruments becomes livelier and more rhythmically rubato. Soon, as one drummer maintains his steady strokes, the other varies his ostinato with rebounds and ripples, at the same time as chromatic pressure from the strings pick up the basic six-note motif. When the massed horn sections intersect with the other groups, the resulting relentless pulse soon begins to resemble that of a TGV train hitting top speed. Heart beats and train pulses become interchangeable with the percussionists and bassists thumping like an aorta, and the lowing, pumping and trilling of the horns replicating the train’s bells and whistles. Eventually it takes a final trumpet flourish and a trombone bray to loosen the agitated sonic tension created by the crescendo.

This release into single notes introduces the concluding section, which with the groaning of the low-pitched brass, and shimmering cymbals, exposes the layered polyharmonies among the instrument to such an extent that the defining motif seems to have to surreptitiously snuck back into the foreground. Shriveling into near inaudibility, the now largo theme is stretched, and then vanishes beneath a single guitar string snap into ear-straining silence as the piece concludes.

Intelligent use of space, silence and cerebral improvisation characterizes each of these CDs. Both add something notable while extending the idea of large ensemble-conduction.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ellipse: 1. Ellipse

Personnel: Ellipse: Richard Cuvillier (cornet); Christian Pruvost (trumpet); Bruno Cheynier (trombone); Claude Colpaert (trombone and gamelan); Martin Hackett (melodica); Michael Potier (saxhorn); Yanik Miossec (clarinet); Guillaume Tarche (soprano saxophone); Laurent Rigaut (alto saxophone); Michel Stawicki (tenor saxophone); Vincent Debaets (baritone saxophone); Martin Granger and Franck Lambert (synthesizers); David Bausseron, Ivann Cruz and Philippe Lenglet (guitars); Antoine Rousseau and Stéphane Levêque (bass guitars); and Pierre Cretel (bass); Peter Orins and Nicolas Chachignot,(drums); Patrick Guionnet and Marie Richard (voices) plus Olivier Benoït (direction)

Track Listing: Falkirk: 1. Improvisation 2. Witch Gong Game 11/10

Personnel: Falkirk: Robert Henderson and Matt Cairns (trumpets); George Murray (trombone); Emma Roche (flute and baroque flute); Matthew Studdert-Kennedy (flute); Nick Fells (shakachi); Daniel Padden (clarinet, percussion and voice); Pete Dowling (alto saxophone); Raymond MacDonald (alto and soprano saxophone); John Burgess (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Graeme Wilson (tenor and baritone saxophone); Bill Wells (keyboard); George Burt and Neil Davidson (guitars); Peter Nicholson (cello); Una MacGlone and George Lyle (bass); Mike Travis (drums) and Nicola MacDonald (voice) plus Maya Homburger (baroque violin) and Barry Guy (bass)