Review Summary: Dense, gargantuan composition, alongside the freest of improvising, in one of Europe's finest moments in jazz.
It is often the case in free- or avant-garde jazz, that a juxtaposition of extremes is explored. Whether it is in mood, dynamics, texture, or otherwise, the best players are able to use the full range of these qualities to create contrast and ultimately, interest. What is not usually explored in its full range, however, is the ‘restrictive’ property of written composition, and in turn, form. After all, is it not these very qualities that the ‘new thing’ was rebelling against in the first place? Europe especially was very welcoming to those types of musicians, who were eschewing such pesky traditions; it is no wonder that the artists they produced during the 60’s and 70’s are some of the most extreme and uncompromising musicians to have ever belonged to jazz. This particular group of Europeans, however, which includes the notably extreme Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey, did utilise large scale composition, to incredible effect.
Formed under the guidance of bassist Barry Guy, and playing his compositions, is the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. Making no secret of the influence from The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, formed in New York several years prior by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, the London variant play in much the same style, though with greater unity and tighter orchestration. The composed material is in no way a hindrance to the improvisations, instead providing a springboard for ideas. The improvisations range from group jams during the loudest, most apocalyptic sections, through to the abstract and ultimately freer sections where there is more space. Bailey, especially, has his chance to shine at the beginning of part IV, where his usually alien style of guitar playing seems like the only thing that would fit in this context. Lytton and Oxley also have sections with more space where they can stretch their arms and legs, underneath a rotating cast of other improvisers, leading to some of the most vibrant and dynamic sections of the performance.
The ever-changing dynamic and texture of the group is due to the arrangements, willing to make the most of each instrument. Whether it is the haunting dirge of part III, which features the brass heavily, the rumbling rhythm section and claustrophobia of part I, or the select group of bass, percussion and a few horns in part V, each part and furthermore each section, is easily distinguished from the last. The arrangements themselves recall both Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus at times, and even Dave Holland in the smaller groups of instruments. Yet out of the jazz world, the first name to come to mind is Gyorgy Ligeti; such is the sustained tension and focus on texture. One might even suggest Alfred Schnittke after hearing the somewhat straight-ahead bop of the closing section, which brings with it a little bit of tonal resolution; if there was perhaps more of this focus, polystylism would not be too far out of the question.
The reason why this gargantuan piece succeeds is that the performers never sound restrained. They still play with the same amount of gusto, emitting the same walls of caustic noise, as they would in freely improvised ensembles. It is the perfect balance between the free and the composed; “a scenario of free and ordered space”, in Guy’s own words, which is no small feat. Both the abstract improvisations and the chaotic composition, which are at times even more claustrophobic than the noisiest jams, are strong enough to stand on their own; together, though, the effect of each is enhanced.