London Improvisers Orchestra

December 18, 2008

Improvisations for George Riste
psi 08.06

London & Glasgow Improvisers Orchestras
Separately & Together
Emanem 4219

Successfully guiding free-form improvisations and conductions utilizing the talents of independent musicians in a large orchestra is a challenge; trying to do the same with two outsized improvising ensembles can be foolhardy. Yet that memorable experiment is captured on Separately & Together, a two-CD record of a 2007 meeting between London’s 27-piece Improvisers Orchestra and Glasgow’s 17-piece Improvisers Orchestra. Separate sets by both bands are also featured.

Improvisations for George Riste is another notable achievement, since it gathers together four extended non-conducted improvisations from the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO), recorded in different configurations during 2003, plus one from 2007.

Subscribing to an antithetical set of dynamic, rhythmic, tonal and sonic considerations despite their numbers, there’s no way this combination of the LIO and the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) creates a cumulative sound close to jazz’s most famous orchestral meeting: that of Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s big bands.

Despite intermixing both bands’ players the immediacy of individual performers is still as evident as it would be in solo flights from any Basie or Ellington bandsmen. For instance “1+1=Different”, which is built on an undertow and nearly physical feel of percussion rattling and thumping, the surging performance maintains its distinct character due to individual players’ strategies. Punctuating the massed drones, pauses and tutti cries among ever-shifting orchestral color fields, are spiraling saxophone spurts and rubato braying from the trumpets; Veryan Weston’s vertical, low-frequency piano chording that keeps the surging line from dissolving into stasis; plus Jackie Walduck’s vibraphone splashes; and a series of flute chirps from Emma Roche and Matthew Studdert-Kennedy that maintain legato formalism.

Meanwhile Catherine Pluygers’ keening oboe sets up the gradual introduction of vamps from the brass, which serve as connective tissue between three percussionists’ marital beats and distorted waves from three guitars, bouzouki, five violins and three celli. As distending string squirms and aviary-pitched reed breaths coalesce, Evan Parker’s elongated tenor saxophone line signals this conduction’s completion.

On its own, the smaller GIO defines itself as the equivalent of the rough-and-ready Basie Band in comparison to the LIO’s stately Ellington-like near-formalism. Whistling brass flutters, thick bass clarinet splatters and an overlay of sibilant flute pressure characterize the GIO’s performances, especially “Seven Sisters (for Barry Guy)”. Evolving from andante exposition to adagio summation, the orchestral coloration makes room for raucous alto saxophone blurts from Raymond MacDonald and fierce triplet exultation from trumpeter Robert Henderson, along with squeezed vocal lines courtesy of Aileen Campbell. Arriving at pseudo-Impressionism, the composition’s sonic tinctures change color gradually, as first one sound than another leeches from the performance like air leaking from a balloon – with the ending built around an assembly of gradually accelerating cello slices from Peter Nicholson.

Playing on its own, the LIO demonstrates how a nine-person string section, two electric guitars and unexpected instruments such as oboe and bamboo pipes can be used for jagged pitch-sliding and solo elaboration as well as scene-setting. Throughout, as the group alternates crescendos and decrescendos of cumulative group improvisation and individual solos, the idea remains that like some of Ellington’s work, the LIO’s overriding impulse is to highlight unique instrumental settings rather than insisting on scene-stopping dramatic statements. That said, most of the improvisations and conductions take full advantage of most of the instruments’ full ranges to add three- dimensional effects to any track’s overall grisaille. For instance John Rangecroft’s high-pitched clarinet glissandi is matched up against, and contrasted with, ratcheting vibraphone blows from Walduck.

Violinist Phil Wachsmann’s conduction, “On the Point of Influence” and the improvisation that precede it demonstrate how any LIO performance can be orchestral and scene-setting as well as contrapuntal, with mercurial solo edging. Layering stratum of instrumental color on top of one another, the piece quickly puts aside a cacophony of pulled, puffed and brayed horn timbres for more lyrical tone extensions. Saxophone obbligatos and heraldic horn parts operate in broken-octave congruence with one another, while sudden rubato trombone plunges from Robert Jarvis feed off an overlay of vibraphone notes and kinetic piano lines. With a wide spread of pizzicato and arco string chords, the ability exists to highlight sul ponticello roughness, traditional walking bass lines from David Leahy and Dominic Lash plus a final mournful cello extro. Further contrast arrives in a coda of brassy flourishes and clattering and popping rebounds from the percussionist.

Four years earlier, different manifestation of the LIO, numbering from 17 to 20 pieces, put together the tracks collected on Improvisations for George Riste. In a transatlantic version of CanCon, the title(s) celebrate then tenacity of Vancouver’s Riste, who refused to sell his 30-room downtown hotel to B.C. Hydro, despite the fact that the giant entity owned all the adjacent property and wanted to build an office tower there. Riste’s reason was altruism; his hotel provided clean, affordable rooms for locals.

Metaphorically it’s Riste’s individuality rather than his altruism that’s celebrated on this disc, since the performances give free reign to committed playing from a clutch of London-based improvisers. “Improvisations for George Riste 4” for instance – which was actually recorded one month after Separately & Together – suggests some of the late John Stevens’ work with expanded versions of the Spontaneous Musical Ensemble. While individuals and sections move to the forefront, never is the expected separation between soloist and backing ensemble emphasized.

Using contrapuntal bridges and broken-octave connections, the idea is to operate on a vector, working polyphonic variants into a cumulative and cooperative formula. A smaller string section of two violins and two celli sound both legato pitch-sliding and sul ponticello chords; twittering, balloon-like huffs from the four brass players ping-pong back-and-forth; while the four percussion-like instruments link ratamacues and drags into an unvarying bedrock crunch. Even tongue-slaps from one or more of the five reed players and braying trumpet blurts merely add to the sfumato tinctures. Eventually guitar lick distortions from John Bisset and Dave Tucker, plus feathery flute vibrations from Neil Metcalfe help cement the interface.

Similarly, “Improvisations for George Riste 1” proves that despite what in other circumstances could be attention-drawing cross-pulsed reed cries, sobs and gasps from the like of Parker, John Butcher, Lol Coxill and Caroline Kraabel, the improvisation remains low-key and pianissimo. This time the polyphony is thick, but it isn’t so blanketing that individual contributions – ranging from Amy Denio’s sluicing accordion vibrations, Metcalfe’s piercing flute shrills and cumulative warbling reed swells – aren’t obvious.

Anyone interested in hearing 21st Century variations on orchestral improvisations would be wise to investigate these CDs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Improvisations: 1. Improvisations for George Riste 1 2. Improvisations for George Riste 2 3. Improvisations for George Riste 3 4. Improvisations for George Riste 4

Personnel: Improvisations: 1: Roland Ramanan (trumpet and wooden flute); Ian Smith (trumpet); Neil Metcalfe (flute); John Rangecroft (clarinet); Harrison Smith (bass clarinet); Lol Coxhill and Evan Parker (soprano saxophone); Adrian Northover (soprano and alto saxophones); Caroline Kraabel (alto saxophone); John Butcher (tenor saxophone); Philipp Wachsmann (violin); Charlotte Hug (viola); B. J. Cole (pedal steel guitar); Steve Beresford (piano); Amy Denio (accordion and voice); David Leahy (bass); Tony Marsh (percussion); Orphy Robinson (percussion and electronics); Knut Aufermann (electronics) and Filomena Campus (voice) 2: Harry Beckett, Guillermo Torres and Ramanan (trumpet); Robert Jarvis (trombone); Catherine Pluygers (oboe); Rangecroft; Jacques Foschia and Harrison Smith (bass clarinet); Coxhill and Adrian Northover (soprano saxophone); Sylvia Hallett and Wachsmann (violin); Beresford; Dave Tucker (guitar); Marcio Mattos (cello); Simon H Fell and Leahy (bass); Marsh; Adam Bohman (amplified objects) and Aufermann 3: Beckett; Smith; Guillermo Torres (flugelhorn); Jarvis; Parker; Northover and Kraabel (alto saxophone); Susanna Ferrar (violin); Fell; Tucker; Beresford; Annie Lewandowski (accordion and musical saw); Marsh; Bohman; Aufermann and Pat Thomas (electronics) 4: Smith; Metcalfe; Rangecroft Chefa Alonso, Coxhill and Northover (soprano saxophone); Simon Rose (alto saxophone); Ferrar; Ivor Kallin (violin and viola); Mattos and Barbara Meyer (cello); John Bisset and Tucker (guitar); Beresford; Jackie Walduck (vibraphone); Javier Carmona and Marsh (percussion) and Bohman

Track Listing: Separately: CD A: Impro intro 2. On the Point of Influence 3. PW to AW 4. Study for Oppy Wood 5. AW to AB 6. Hive Life 7. Too late, too late, it’s Ever so Late 8. Seven Sisters (for Barry Guy) 9. Stagione CD B: 1. Big Ideas, Images and Distorted facts 2. 811 joint response 3. 1+1=different 4. Outlaw

Personnel: Separately: London Improvisers Orchestra [Beckett, Ramanan, Smith (trumpet); Jarvis (trombone); Pluygers (oboe); Terry Day (bamboo pipes); Rangecroft (clarinet); Alonso, Coxhill, Northover (soprano saxophone); Kraabel (alto saxophone); Parker (tenor saxophone); Alison Blunt, Ferrar, Hallett, Wachsmann (violin); Kallin (violin, viola); Hannah Marshall, Mattos, Meyer (cello); Veryan Weston (piano); Bisset, Tucker (guitar); Walduck, (vibraphone); Leahy and Dominic Lash (bass);Carmona (percussion)] and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra [Matthew Cairns, Robert Henderson (trumpet); George Murray (trombone); Emma Roche, Matthew Studdert-Kennedy (flute); John Burgess (bass clarinet); Raymond MacDonald (alto saxophone); Graeme Wilson (baritone saxophone; George Burt, Neil Davidson (guitar); Chris Hladowski (bouzouki); Peter Nicholson, cello; Una MacGlone, Armin Sturm (bass); Rick Bamford, Stuart Brown, percussion] and Aileen Campbell (voice)