Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra

January 6, 2010

Creative Sources CS 114 CD

Anthony Braxton/Italian Instabile Orchestra
Creative Orchestra 2007
RAI Trade RTP J0013

Creating large form improvisations involving groups of musicians in polyphonic agreement without losing the spontaneity implicit in smaller groups has long been a challenge for composers. Many methods have been tried in order to introduce and maintain sonic freedom when the ensemble is larger than the standard 16-piece Jazz band. These mostly European sessions outline two successful ways of doing so.

Consisting of many of that country’s most advanced players, the 17-piece Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO) has been coping with this conundrum during its existence, playing compositions germinated by band members as well as creations for guest soloists such as pianist Cecil Taylor. For his part, American reedist/composer Anthony Braxton has also been dealing with the large-group challenge at least since the late 1970s. Creative Orchestra (Bolzano) shows how members of the IIO express themselves individually through the medium of four Braxton compositions – with the composer’s participation.

Much younger in conception, the 20-piece Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO), which successfully utilized a variant of the IIO-Braxton partnership when bassist Barry Guy worked with the band in 2005, resolves the large ensemble challenge in a different fashion. Rather than numbered compositions, here the GIO plays three short improvisations plus a so-called discretely structured piece by saxophonist and GIO member Raymond MacDonald

Each approach is equally valid as is the music on both CDs.

Although Braxton’s distance from Jazz – whatever the term means – is well known, his composing and playing is informed by Jazz> Considering that the IIO is made up of some of the peninsula’s most accomplished Jazz players, Bolzano may be the American’s most overtly Jazzy date in years. Unfortunately no soloists are identified. Although it’s pretty obvious that the distinctively rough and funky tenor saxophone of Daniele Cavallanti and jocular and pumping baritone saxophone of Carlo Actis Dato are featured, along with the sharp and serrated spiccato of Emanuele Parrini’s violin.

Layered and polyphonic, the Braxton scores list either towards notated formalism or looser Jazz-styled rhythms. It’s a credit to Braxton and the IIO that neither sonic strand is supreme – nor does either submerge solo or group free-form improvisation. More praxis than pastiche, the initial composition is hung on a series of stretched and swelling sound blocks, often with rococo-like clarinet warbling and string-section pulses sustaining the lyricism. The piece eventually opens up to reveal and then swiftly swallow distinctive solos. These include sharp, stop-and-start cello arpeggios; tenor saxophone tongue slaps and snorts; wood block thwacks and snare ruffs from the percussionists; plunger trombone and trumpet interpolation; Parrini’s overriding fiddle line; and expanded warbling grace notes from an alto saxophonist who may be Braxton, Eugenio Colombo or Gianluigi Trovesi.

Easing into “Composition No. 92 Part 1”, the beat is strong enough to suggest the Peter Gun theme. Horn glissandi and muscular rhythm section comping move the piece chromatically forward, as Giovanni Maier’s bass walks and Vincenzo Mazzone’s and Tiziano Tononi’s dual kits rumble, clatter and smack. Meanwhile one of the trombonists – perhaps Giancarlo Schiaffini – smears and brays raucously to match the triple-tonguing and vamping from Cavallanti. Eventually percussive rim shots and slaps plus metal-resonating reed bites from the tenor man lead to the becalmed patterning of “Composition No. 164 Part 1”.

Don’t imagine that the orchestral shifts are so obvious that the band dons alternate Count Basie-like or Arturo Toscanini-like coloration. But the textured mixtures are maintained throughout the performance as staccato and alternately smooth, thick and thin, as tough and tender passages complement and mirror one another. Feathery light trumpet spits meet thick reed vibratos; tick-tock, high frequency piano chords mix it up with lightly paced contralto clarinet and airy flute runs; and rattling percussion extensions face subterranean baritone saxophone and tuba growls. Often forte, mercurial string stops find their variations intercut with hocketing blasts and puffs from the horns.

If the IIO and Braxton deal with large-scale improv by alternately legato and staccato measures, plus solo and group passages, then the GIO – recorded less than two weeks earlier –follows a different game plan. Essentially the poetics here are group poetics, with no differentiation between soloist and accompanist. Simultaneously independent and interrelated, every sound appears at the same time. What that means is that ragged, jagged and abrasive cross currents mix sul ponticello below-the-bridge scrapes from the strings, split-tone chirps and ratchets from the reeds and bell-muted brass grace notes.

Solid, yet minimalist, the narrative is advanced in broken octaves with distant choked voicing, shuffle bowing and understated valve squeezes from the brass. Most characteristic is “I’m Sorry But I’ve Fallen.” As a legato, sequenced flourish is introduced by trumpeter Matthew Cairns, the six strings scrub and rub bow patterns while the two drummers slap, stroke and drag pulses from their kits. Diminutive interludes encompassing George Burt’s acoustic guitar strums and MacDonald’s crying alto saxophone vibrations easily fade back into the sonic miasma of wood-splitting strokes from the bassists, discordant electric guitar lines and high-pitched flute peeps. No summation, the tune reflects the preceding piece and adumbrates the dissonant and dense movement that follows it.

Formally tracking the linear progress of large group improvisation is probably as fruitless as trying to construct a historical time lines for any music. However listening to either or both of these notable sessions will show how performances by these particular formations are evolving on their own.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Bolzano: 1. Composition No.. 63 2. Composition No. 92 Part 1 3. Composition No. 164 Part 1 4. Composition No. 92 Part 2 5. Composition No. 164 Part 2 6. Composition No. 59

Personnel: Bolzano: Pino Minafra, Alberto Mandarini, Guido Mazzon (trumpets); Lauro Rossi, Sebi Tramontana and Gincarlo Schiaffini (trombones); Martin Mayes (French horn); Anthony Braxton (sopranino and alto saxophones); Gianluigi Trovesi (alto saxophone and Eb clarinet); Eugenio Colombo (alto saxophone, flute and bass flute); Daniele Cavallanti (tenor saxophone); Carlo Actis Dato (baritone saxophone); Emanuele Parrini (violin); Paolo Damiani (cello); Umberto Petrin (piano); Giovanni Maier (bass)and Vincenzo and Tiziano Tononi (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Poetics: 1. Apricot Path 2. Dog’s Got My Money 3. I’m Sorry But I’ve Fallen 4. Distributed Talk

Personnel: Poetics: Matthew Cairns (trumpet); George Murray (trombone); Raymond MacDonald (soprano and alto saxophones); Graeme Wilson (tenor and baritone saxophones); John Burgess (bass clarinet); Matthew Studdert-Kennedy (flute); Emma Roche (flute and baroque flute); Nick Fells (shakuhachi); George Burt (acoustic guitar); Neil Davidson (electric guitar); Krzysztof Hladowski (bouzouki); Ernesto Rodrigues (viola); Guilherme Rodrigues, Jessica Sullivan and Peter Nicholson (cello); George Lyle and Armin Sturm (bass); Richard Bamford and Stuart Brown (drums and percussion) and Aileen Campbell (voice)