by Ian Mann
March 10, 2023
Dedicated to the memory of the late George Lyle the blending of compositional elements with free improvisation & with recording technology is genuinely innovative and makes for a rich & varied album.
Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra
“Flying A Kite On An Empty Beach”
(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM15)
Maggie Nicols, Cliona Cassidy – voice
Graeme Wilson, Sue McKenzie, Javier Paxarino – saxophones
Emma Roche – flute
Robert Henderson - trumpet
Sam Beagles – trombone
Fergus Kerr – French horn
Alister Spence - piano
Jer Reid, George Burt, Neil Davidson – guitars
Armin Sturm, Una MacGlone – double bass
Corey Mwamba - vibraphone
Adam Linson, Laura Kavanaugh, Ian Birse – electronics
Rick Bamford, Stuart Brown, Fritz Welch – drums, percussion
Catriona McKay – clarsach
Ken Slaven – strings
Peter Nicholson – cello
Raymond McDonald – saxophones, piano, voice
Kyalo Searle-Mbullu- guitar, electronics
Anne Pajunen – voice, viola, electronics
Atza Muramatsu – cello, electronics
Gerry Rossi – piano, bass, electronics
Jim McEwan – Rhodes piano, guitar, engineering
Gus Stirrat – sound, recording
Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra is a pool of around twenty musicians from a variety of musical and artistic backgrounds. Although named for the city of its foundation it is an international organisation that regularly collaborates with artists from different countries and also holds an annual festival of improvised music in Glasgow, this featuring many well known international performers.
This latest album represents the GIO’s thirteenth release and follows an acclaimed series of recordings, some of which have included the GIO with leading guest improvisers such as saxophonist Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill, bassist Barry Guy, pianist Marilyn Crispell and vocalist Maggie Nicols, the latter now a full member of the ensemble. There have also been collaborations with like minded ensembles from London and Chicago.
“Flying A Kite On An Empty Beach” celebrates the life of one of the GIO’s founding members, the bassist George Lyle, who passed away in 2016 at the age of seventy six. The Wire magazine’s obituary can be found here and makes for illuminating reading;
The new album appears on the Newcastle based New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings imprint founded in 2020 by Wesley Stephenson as an outlet for improvising musicians during the course of the pandemic. The label continues to flourish and to document important musical works such as this.
The album features five very substantial pieces, all of them very different, written by members of the ensemble in memory of Lyle. The album booklet includes short essays by the composers about their pieces and of how they have been inspired by their personal and musical memories of Lyle. Some feature the full ensemble, others smaller groups sourced from the GIO’s pool of players. The compositions feature notated and graphic scores plus full on collective improvisation and all seek to capture something of the spirit of George Lyle.
The album opens with “Belmont Street”, a stunning soundscape created by saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, who is also credited with piano and voice, and sound engineer Jim McEwan, who also plays Rhodes and guitar. The piece is named after the street in the west end of Glasgow in which Lyle used to live. MacDonald used to live nearby and performed regularly with Lyle, who was part of a quartet that MacDonald led with GIO guitarist George Burt. The piece features samples and loops of Lyle’s bass playing extracted from old recordings and these have been combined with live improvisations to create what MacDonald calls “a short meditative soundscape with an ambiguous looping rhythm”. Lyle, who plays with the bow, is not the only musician to have been sampled, with the playing of guitarist Burt and drummer Allan Pendreigh also clearly audible. Besides his contributions on Rhodes and guitar McEwan, who soundsculpted the finished product, also recorded on electromagnetic tape the “energy” outside Lyle’s old Belmont Street apartment, the street sounds also finding their way into the mix. The piece ends with MacDonald singing the lines;
“Long time waiting, but the sun will push up a brighter day”. It’s not a typical ‘improv’ performance but it is a beautiful and highly evocative piece of music that defies categorisation and is a credit to all those involved in it, whether consciously or otherwise.
We’re into more obvious ‘avant garde’ territory with Burt’s own “For GL”, a piece centred around the playing of two double basses (presumably Armin Sturm and Una MacGlone) and two cellos (presumably Peter Nicholson and Atzi Muramatsu). Other members of the ensemble act as what Burt describes as “a kind of Greek Chorus, occasionally joining in but mostly just witnessing what is going on”. The performance is based on the minimum of information with Burt scribbling his instructions to the musicians on post-it notes. Lyle himself was committed to the concept of improvising freely and generally ignoring the instructions of composers and conductors.
At sixteen minutes plus duration it’s immediately obvious that it’s a freer, more open piece than “Belmont Street” and inevitably the sounds of basses and cello, whether plucked, bowed or struck predominate, but one also hears interjections from reeds and brass. The four string instruments produce a fascinating range of colours and textures and the musicians also explore a range of extended techniques. There is also a vocal section that the composer describes as “a short sung text from Confucius, and the soloists should play at the focus of a yin-yang sign drawn on the floor. And they should not think about George Lyle while they’re playing…” The words are sung in English but there is also some extraordinary wordless vocal improvising.
Lyle’s fellow bassist Una MacGlone is the composer of “Another Room”, a piece based on Lyle’s style of playing, which was very different to the classically trained MacGlone’s, as she observes;
“In the early years of GIO I would often sit next to or opposite him. I’d hear how differently he approached the instrument to me. He’d talk about how he liked my bowed sound and I’d talk about how I liked his plucked sound.”
The piece uses a mix of notation and descriptive instruction which was then presented to the musicians as a graphic score, which they were invited to navigate as they chose. It is intended as “a gentle remembrance of GL’s playing and sound” and is performed by a nonet featuring MacGlone (bass), Stuart Brown (drums, percussion), Adam Linson (electronics), Sue MacKenzie (saxophones), Corey Mwamba (vibes), Jer Reid (guitar), Emma Roche (flute) and Cliona Cassidy (voice), with engineer Jim McEwan also credited as part of the ensemble.
The music unfolds slowly and organically over the course of some twenty one minutes with a high level of thoughtful interaction between the musicians involved. It embraces a wide range of sounds, colours and textures, but without one instrument overly dominating. Sometimes the ensemble is broken down into smaller denominations to enable more intimate musical conversations between the players. It’s very obviously a ‘free jazz’ performance and one can visualise the musicians listening, watching and interacting with each other. When approached in the right frame of mind it makes for fascinating and absorbing listening. The second section of the piece also incorporates a recording of a Thelonious Monk tune, a musician that MacGlone recalls discussing with Lyle.
This section sounds more conventional and includes Cassidy’s beautiful wordless vocals alongside the recorded piano. It serves as a kind of musical valediction.
Gerry Rossi’s essay includes musical and personal memories of Lyle and recalls the time in the 1990s when the pair were part of a group called Inspector Blakey and the Jazz Conductors that regularly played gigs at Art Galleries. That period informed “Shuffle”, Rossi’s contribution to this recording. I’ll let him take up the story;
“We had neither inspectors nor conductors in the group, but the few gigs we played were at Art Galleries and we tested the speed of our writing prowess by playing only original music composed and inspired by the paintings hanging on the gallery wall – usually with only a few days’ notice.
Having failed that test myself a number of times, I decided this would be a good and relatively unique starting place for a tribute – a tributary, even, and the idea for this piece subsequently arrived as fast as those earlier ones. I assembled a graphic score consisting of ‘paintings’ containing not oily but musical ideas where the ‘observers’ are the musicians and the idea is to ‘musically walk’ round the exhibition, taking in each picture at a time and then moving along to the next one.
These ‘pictures’ have their own discrete musical ideas, all adapted from music I had written for George to play at those concerts, and the process of moving along becomes not a Modest promenade but a shuffle – George had his own very cool walk, you see.
It all culminates in a ‘pizzicato pizza’ – we arrived at something similar in one of those very gigs – what George then called affectionately ‘just a bit of plucking about at the end’. That was precisely twenty years ago.
George had a copy of E.H.Gombrich’s Art and Illusion which we had a look through once looking for some musical inspiration. We never found it then, but in the modern spirit of recycling, and as another layer on that metaphorical pizza, I included references to that text as a pointer for the musicians (should they be amenable to a little pointing) for a bit of added mystical spice”
This piece features the full GIO and emerges from a suitably shuffling bass and drum rhythm before moving on to embrace some belligerent sax and guitar wrangling. The ‘shuffle’ returns and the music moves on to the next ‘painting’ or ‘scene’, this time featuring plaintive sound of Robert Henderson’s trumpet and the shimmer of electronica. We then shuffle on through a passage featuring the eerie sounds of Roche’s flute. Bass and drums then lead us forward to another atmospheric sequence featuring strings and vibes, and then on to sections variously featuring voices, drums, reeds and brass, then finally the ‘pizzicato pizza’ section, which includes kalimba / mbira type sounds.
The idea of moving forward from one musical painting to another is brilliantly realised throughout and this linked series of musical vignettes is consistently absorbing and fascinating, yet even though the ensemble is periodically broken down into smaller components the GIO still sounds like a single organism.
The album concludes with “A Sonic Meditation for George Lyle” written by drummer / percussionist Fritz Welch. Lyle and Welch frequently used to jam together as well as working alongside each other as members of the GIO. Welch’s essay includes some vivid personal and musical memories of Lyle in addition to details about this piece, which Welch describes as “a large ensemble improvisation in two parts”
“Part one utilizes a recording made in April 2015 of George and I vocalizing together. George is in the room. GIO members join in to form a choir of utterances and exhalations. The second part is an instrumental improvisation of undetermined duration focusing on an imagined culmination of George’s favourite stuff (sounds, composers, meditation techniques) which serve as a simulation of a structure for mass improvisation. We strive towards an aural embodiment of the essential George Lyle”
The piece builds from almost subliminal beginnings to embrace eerie wordless vocalisations, almost reminiscent of throat singing at times. With vocal improvisers of the calibre of Maggie Nicols in the band some quite extraordinary vocal sounds are produced and the atmosphere continues into the instrumental section, which sees liberal use of various extended techniques. It’s also easy to see why engineers McEwan and Gus Stirrat are credited as part of the ensemble as this is a performance that has been transformed into a genuine soundscape, thus effectively bookending the album and acting as something of a companion piece to the opening “Belmont Street”.
“Flying A Kite On An Empty Beach” makes for fascinating listening. The blending of compositional elements with free improvisation and with recording technology is genuinely innovative and makes for a rich and varied album. The love that the various composers share for the late George Lyle is obvious throughout and that love is exemplified by the care and thought that has gone into these pieces. This may be ‘free jazz’ with a strong focus on improvisation, but it’s not a casual ‘let’s record this and see what happens’ session. There’s far more to the music than that.
On the whole I found it to be both absorbing and enjoyable, but at the end of the day it is at the more experimental end of the jazz spectrum and as such will only appeal to so many people’s ears. Nevertheless I’d recommend this to all fans of free jazz and experimental music, hence the star rating. There’s some excellent, if challenging, music here and the opening track, “Belmont Street” rather stands apart from the rest of the recording and given the right exposure could actually appeal to a broader listening constituency.
“Flying A Kite On An Empty Beach” is an album that the members of the GIO, plus the NEWJAiM label, can be justly proud of and it represents a fitting memorial to the musical pioneer that was George Lyle.
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