Preview / Interview: Barry Guy New Orchestra at Cafe Oto, 20-22 May

Barry Guy, London, 2014
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Preview: Barry Guy New Orchestra
(Cafe Oto, 20-21 May. Preview / interview and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Virtuoso bassist and composer, Barry Guy, has been a key figure in the British and European jazz and free improvising scenes for over 40 years. Best known as founder of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and as a fiendishly inventive improviser in the reknowned trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton, and in projects with the likes of Mats Gustafsson and Marilyn Crispell, he brings his Barry Guy New Orchestra to Cafe Oto for a 3-day residency on 20-22 May (tickets HERE).

Guy also straddles the jazz and classical divide, with appointments as principal bass player in highly respected chamber orchestras, including The Academy of Ancient Music, over a 25 year period, and concert repertoires that combine jazz improvisation, early music and contemporary classical material.

His adventurous and demanding compositions and recordings have won prestigious international awards and critical accolades, and he attracts commissions from international musicians and festivals of the highest calibre.

He has appeared on several key ECM recordings, with The Hilliard Ensemble, John Surman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, and under his own name with his wife, early music specialist Maya Homburger, with whom he also runs the diverse and esoteric Maya Recordings CD label.

As well being as an acclaimed solo and small group performer, Guy’s large ensemble work with the LJCO and, since 2000, the BGNO, has brought together leading improvisers for concerts of unsurpassed dynamic invention and its British debut at Cafe Oto will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the jazz and free music calendar.

Geoff Winston interviewed him for London Jazz News:

Geoff Winston: The residency of the Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO) at Cafe Oto on 20, 21 and 22 May with eleven of the most resourceful musicians around must be an appealing prospect. And an intimate venue, perhaps, offers something different to the more formal concert hall setting?

Barry Guy: Yes indeed. The atmosphere of Cafe Oto is relaxed and, from my previous experiences, there exists an intense concentration coming from the listeners. It’s also rather special to find a place in the audience to hear one’s colleagues rather than sitting back stage.

GW: Will you be programming each night along similar lines of residencies in Switzerland, Poland and Germany, facilitating solo spots, performances by duos, trios and other groupings, as well those by the full orchestra? How will it work?

BG: Exactly as you have observed. There are so many possibilities and my main task is to make sure that all of the musicians have adequate space to work out their music with others. There’s also the joy of perhaps putting together an unusual combination which surprises us all.

(Since the interview, Barry has confirmed that each of the three nights will feature a full band set from the BGNO.)

GW: The line-up of instrumentalists in your New Orchestra makes a very strong case for the strength and depth of European jazz and contemporary music. You are now living in Switzerland and have been working with many of these musicians for quite a number of years, in small groups and in the 18-piece London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) which you founded in 1972, as well as the BGNO.

Who will be in the BGNO on the night? How did you find them – or do they find you? There must be some interesting stories along the way.

BG: The BGNO line-up will be: Herb Robertson (trumpet), Johannes Bauer (trombone), Per Åke Holmlander (tuba), Trevor Watts (alto sax), Evan Parker (soprano/tenor sax), Per ‘Texas’ Johansson (baritone sax/clarinet), Hans Koch (bass clarinet), Maya Homburger (violin), Agusti Fernandez (piano), Paul Lytton (percussion), Raymond Strid (percussion), and myself (bass/director).

Following a Berlin Jazz Festival performance by the LJCO in 1998, Patrik Landolt, the boss of Intakt Records, suggested putting together a smaller ensemble that could operate when funds were not available for the big group. It took me a while to assimilate the ramifications of such a move since I was still hooked to the LJCO size and orchestration possibilities. After a while it occurred to me that a group of players based upon three working trios (Parker/Guy/Lytton, Guy/Crispell/Lytton and Guy/Gustafsson/Strid – now called Tarfala) with additional musicians who had crossed paths over the years would be a good basis for the BGNO. After the first project and recording (Inscape – Tableaux), Marilyn Crispell got a little tired of transatlantic travelling and suggested Agusti Fernandez as a pianist that could take over from her. It worked a treat, and now of course I have a trio with Agusti and Ramon Lopez. A little later I had the chance to invite Trevor Watts into the band to complete a more balanced orchestra – cementing the connection between the trumpet and the saxophone section. This represented a satisfying and important link with the LJCO since Trevor was a founding member.

Barry Guy, London, 2014
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

GW: How do your working relationships with these musicians evolve, given your demanding compositions which mix conventional and intricate graphic scores with improvised tracts, and have you conducting, sometimes in conduction mode, as well as playing alongside them? You must have complete trust in their abilities to respond to the musical structure and to inject their own expressive input in to the whole schema.

BG: That’s the whole idea really and yes, it has been important to compose music that allows the musician’s creative imagination to flourish. Sometimes it is quite tricky to pull the rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, but with my constant analysing of previous scores and their successes and problems, I get to hold the rabbit without too much fuss. The main objective is to write only what needs to be written to balance composition and improvisation.

GW: On the final night the Orchestra will be performing the two major compositions, AMPHI (2010) and RADIO RONDO (2008), that make up the latest CD on your Maya Recordings label. They are quite a contrast, with AMPHI written around Maya’s baroque violin (Maya Homburger, Barry’s wife and musical partner) and RADIO RONDO, around various high energy groupings. Can you tell us a bit about these pieces?

BG: Briefly, AMPHI might be termed as ‘chamber music’, whilst RADIO RONDO looks towards a more orchestral landscape. The listeners must adjust their expectations accordingly since the expansiveness of the grand piano offers an obvious ‘big picture’ in RADIO RONDO whilst the orchestration for the baroque violin in AMPHI is more internalised. Of course I have to thank Maya in the first place for suggesting such a risky but irresistible project. Orchestrating for such a delicate sounding instrument posed some interesting questions, not least in the the balance between her violin and brass, saxophones and percussion. In AMPHI I envisaged the baroque violin being gently embraced by the ensemble (think King Kong gently holding the female atop the Empire State building), whilst RADIO RONDO throws the whole ensemble at the grand piano with Agusti on high alert to deal with whatever comes his way.

GW: Where did you study and practice architecture and how did you make the transition to music?

Do you sense a relationship between the two practices? I know that some of your compositions have architectural inspiration, not to mention form – AMPHI being a case in point, related to the physical structure of Aalto’s Helsinki Technical University. And others have links with artists such as Alan Davie.

BG: A book could be written about this, and I should point out that my musical migration was jazz through to contemporary through to early music projects.

Concerning my architectural activities, I was ‘articled’ to a London-based practice of restoration architects called Caroe and Partners. Their work extended from University College Cardiff through to some of the great cathedrals (Wells and Canterbury for instance), as well as many West Country churches. I enjoyed the work immensely. Whilst working day-times with the practice, I attended music evening classes in composition, playing gigs and generally immersing myself in music until the opportunity arose to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. So when the doors opened for me, I dived in with total enthusiasm soaking up whatever I encountered. It was a heady time! My architectural interests however did not desert me, in fact they became stronger, so much so that I found situations emerging where architectural structures influenced my compositional musings.

Additional to architecture, I’ve often found paintings to be quite important. In my day-to-day activities the artists Alan Davie, Bert Irvin and Fred Hellier play a large part in the sense that they constantly stimulate my imagination. The vitality that the canvasses exude represents a daily pleasure and my graphic scores have benefited enormously from their work. My other influence is the work of Samuel Beckett, but that is another story.

GW: Can you say something about the impact on your work for large ensembles of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association (which Evan Parker has cited as a major influence), and perhaps also about Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s Global Unity Orchestra and the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, which all started up in the mid-60s?

BG: All of the ensembles you mentioned started before the LJCO and it was the JCOA that I first heard when I had all but completed my first large scale work, ODE. I was so thrilled by the discovery that Michael Mantler was working with a similar type of notation. My desire was then to get in touch with Mike to exchange scores and perhaps to prepare some performances, but my naivety led me nowhere since I was generally so unworldly and without the knowledge or contacts to make a connection. Many years later I met Mike and told him of my hopes. I think he was mildly amused.

As far as Globe Unity and ICP were concerned I knew more about their music from reports by Paul Rutherford and guys that had an international reputation. I concluded that the working methods of these ensembles were just different from my own, so didn’t really research their music. I knew it was very original though.

Geoff Winston: This Cafe Oto residency is a milestone, the first – and long overdue – appearance of the BGNO in the UK. What sort of impression would you like to feel that you will make on those lucky enough to be able to attend any of these dates. What do you hope they will go away with?

Barry Guy: My hope is that we deliver improvised and composed music of a high order that will thrill the audience. The colours are so diverse and unpredictable, so there should be something for everybody. The sounds will come from practitioners who have developed their individual art for many years, so we should be ready for surprises. If the listener goes away with a sense of discovery, then we will have done our job.

Categories: miscellaneous

4 replies »

  1. Geoff Winston writes: I’ve been in touch with Barry and Maya as there has been interest in what the programming will be over the 3 nights, and they confirmed the following:

    “On 20 and 21 May there will be small formations: (trios, duos, quartets up to possibly almost the whole orchestra) doing FREE improvised pieces.

    And on the third night, 22 May, there will also be some small groups AND the two BGNO pieces ‘Amphi’ and ‘Radio Rondo’.”

  2. Geoff Winston writes: … and the detailed schedule for each evening is now up on the Cafe Oto site at:

    I've copied it here:


    Set 1:
    – DUOS …. Agusti Fernandez / Paul Lytton, Hans Koch / Barry Guy,
    – Per Texas Johansson / Jürg Wickihalder (c. 15’ for each duo…..)

    Set 2:
    – Agusti Fernandez, Johannes Bauer, Jürg Wickihalder, Herb Robertson, Per Ake Holmlander, Per Texas Johansson, Raymond Strid, Paul Lytton (c. 15’)
    – Evan Parker / Barry Guy Duo (c. 10‘)
    – “Danaus” with Evan Parker as soloist (BGNO) (c. 20’)


    Set 1:
    – Herb solo … Evan solo… Agusti solo …(with overlaps) concluding in TRIO (c. 20’ total)
    – “Celebration” : Maya Homburger and Barry Guy (c. 6’)
    – Quartet : Hans Koch, Per Ake Holmlander, Raymond Strid , Paul Lytton (c. 15’)

    Set 2:
    – Parker / Guy / Lytton trio (c. 25’ )
    – Vosteen by Evan Parker… (BGNO) (c. 20’)


    Set 1:
    – Johannes Bauer/Barry Guy (c. 7' )
    – “Amphi” for baroque violin and BGNO (c. 27' ) UK première
    – “Topos” quartet : Parker, Guy, Lytton with Agusti Fernandez ( c. 15 ' )

    Set 2:
    – “Rondo for Nine Birds” Homburger / Guy Duo ( c. 14 ' ) UK première
    – “Radio Rondo” for Agusti Fernandez and BGNO (c. 30' ) UK première

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