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.

—Ken Waxman

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)