«....where the composition could coexist alongside the soloists, both in concept and the resultant sound»
Barry Guy on LJCO, 1972
When I first heard about the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, the word «composer» stood out like wings on a pig. With a cast that has included Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Peter Brötzmann and Peter Kowald, Paul Lytton and Evan Parker, it seemed more like and improvisers' convention than a composers' orchestra. With the benefit of a few years consideration, I have now realised that the moniker has two meanings: 1) the writing kind of composer (like Guy or any of the other player/composers or just plain-composers whose music LJCO has embraced) who directs and manipulates the orchestra with charts; 2) the «instant composer», that is, the free improviser.
LJCO is at once a big-band playing a particular style of music by jazz composers and an orchestra built out of improvisers. Recent years have seen Guy make good on the first definition; he has written the ensemble a book of luxuriant scores in an instantly recognisable compositional style, thereby giving the group an audible identity beyond that of its individual members. But the earlier pieces, like the earliest, «Ode», utilised more open-ended and less thematic structures and frames, letting the soloists become the compositions, as much as «coexisting» with them. In its infancy the (now 25 - year -old) band seems to me to have emphasised the latter definition: the instant composer.
Blurring the line between composition, interpretation and extemporisation, LJCO was, and in many respects still is, a band in which everyone was a composer. Here we have Barry Guy's first attempt, as he explained at the time, to revitalise the stilted American big-band tradition with the rich new blood of European free music. But I think of LJCO in relation to an ongoing line of large ensemble composer-leaders, not as a total break from them. Some other enterprising soul will have to connect the European compositional dots - Xenakis, Ligeti, Penderecki, Takemitsu, Mahler, Monteverdi, Codex, Camerata - but I'll take a swing at the group's jazz matrix. Of course, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis thread is hardly continued in LJCO, but we can track back through a lot of jazz history finding points of connection. These are by no means «influences» - many aren't even bands or approaches that have especially captured Guy's interest over the years - but they constitute a matrix of the very best large-scale creative music ensembles, a context in which we can situate one line of LJCO's activities.
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