Festival Report

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