Since its premiere in Krakow in 2014, Barry Guy's stunning work, The Blue Shroud, has only been performed a handful of times. The 70-minute work, which will be staged at the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival, forms one of the crowning glories of the British bassist's illustrious career, being the first to unite his varied interests in Baroque music, composition, jazz and improv at an orchestral scale. To bring the work to life Guy has assembled a crack team, capable of rendering each facet to the highest level, including several early music specialists who are also able to extemporize.
And the subject for Guy’s work is worthy of such effort. He takes as his inspiration from three interlinked themes: the Spanish Civil War atrocity at Guernica, Picasso’s masterpiece of the same name, and the titular blue awning hung over a tapestry of that painting which was the backdrop when US Secretary of State Colin Powell set out the case for the invasion of Iraq at the UN Building in New York in 2003. Fundamental to the piece's genesis was the text by Irish poet Kerrie Hardy, which furnishes the words sung by Greek vocalist Savina Yannatou, and which also suggested to Guy how the piece might be structured.
To offset the spiky improv and dense ensembles Guy also incorporates some of the most transcendent melodies ever written, devising settings for extracts from H.I.F. Biber’s 'Mystery Sonatas' and the 'Agnus Dei' from J.S. Bach’s 'B minor Mass'. In the context of a piece reflecting the horrors of war, Guy repurposes these tunes to signify humanity, indomitable spirit and ultimately hope.
When a festival booking for the work fell through, Guy took the opportunity to bring the 14 musicians from nine countries together in the Wicklow Mountains for a two day rehearsal. The location was chosen not only for its convivial ambience but also as a unique backcloth for filming a documentary about Guy's opus. It was director Jonathan Creasy who proposed using the historic Aghavannagh Barracks as the venue, and he who filled the tower with theatrical fog to establish an otherworldly atmosphere during the rehearsal.
With the band arranged in a semicircle with Guy as the focus, the bassist conducted a bar by bar run through of the score, tightening up the interpretation, making minor adjustments to get the balance right, pushing sections on with marginally greater animation, and heightening the expressive feel. It was noticeable that the Baroque elements were the ones which needed least practice, perhaps because they are second nature to principals like violinist Maya Homburger, violist Marja Gaynor and reedmen Michael Niesemann and Torben Snekkestad.
Once everyone had refamiliarised themselves with the overall shape of the work, Guy devoted time to particular technical aspects which required more practice, then finally on the afternoon of the second day put everything together in a complete performance. The piece moved in contrasts and juxtapositions, a bit like Guy's bass style writ large, with bursts of improv between and among the composed segments.
Memorable passages were everywhere. An early mercurial exchange between Agusti Fernandez’s piano and Percy Pursglove’s trumpet grabbed the ears. Yannatou's beautiful voice floated above the lyrical cosseting of the bass, Benjamin Dwyer’s Spanish guitar, Gaynor's viola and Niesemann's oboe, giving Hardie’s text great emotional weight. Elsewhere she used wordless sounds to convey confusion, fear, anguish and defiance. Later the cadence turned jazzy as drummer Lucas Niggli's crisp figures powered funky waltz section, while Niesemann’s alto saxophone ramped up the intensity in a thickened vocalised wail, and the orchestra metamorphosed into a surging big band behind him.
In its entirety the work dazzled as a multifaceted journey through transcendent melodies, whip crack orchestral interjections, intricate rhythmic motifs, solo and small group outbursts, song and recitation. The end result was tremendously affecting. Guy's triumph was that all those disparate ingredients coalesced into a singular experience. The full run through was lauded by the band as the best rendition so far and augurs well for future festival appearances.
The Blue Shroud Band will be appearing at the 2019 London Jazz Festival at the Purcell Room on Saturday 16 November – for more info visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk