Bassist Barry Guy on Improvisation, His Busy Year and Galileo


Barry Guy performed on Louisiana Variations, Syllogistic Moments and Sidereus Nuncius: The Starry Messenger, each released in 2018.

(Photo: Francesca Pfeffer)

Now in his seventh decade, London-born bassist and composer Barry Guy has been a prolific and hugely influential musician who still sees fit to radically explore new modes of improvisation.

Guy’s standing in the European free-music scene was cemented alongside collaborators like saxophonist Evan Parker, drummers Paul Lytton and Tony Oxley, the late guitarist Derek Bailey, and while playing the in improv ensemble Iskra 1903. In his convention-defying quest, the bassist has obliterated expectations with abstract elasticity while deconstructing jazz, classical and orchestral composition, and chamber music. Running the gamut from cascading clatter to entrancing subtlety and arresting classically informed passages, the sounds that Guy delivers from his bass are positively otherworldly.

His prowess was evidenced on three disparate recordings during 2018: Louisiana Variations with Norwegian saxophonist Torben Snekkestad and Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández, Syllogistic Moments with trumpeter Peter Evans and Sidereus Nuncius: The Starry Messenger with Spanish drummer and percussionist Ramón Lopez. The latter two were released by Guy and Swiss violinist Maya Homburger (his life partner) through their Maya Recordings imprint.

With 2019’s schedule shaping up to be as busy as last year, Guy took time to talk to talk about his recent recordings, and playing with Parker and Bailey.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you prepare differently for in-studio albums like Sidereus Nuncius, and concert recordings like the impromptu Syllogistic Moments and Louisiana Variations?

The two live concert recordings of course reflect precisely what improvising musicians do: create music reflecting the combined history of the players while receiving the ambience of the place and audience. The studio recording, Sidereus Nuncius with Ramón Lopez, found us considering different strategies—shorter, longer, slower, faster—that would best guide us to a music that would be colorful and intense, but considered.

The compositions on Syllogistic Moments are titled after Robert Lax’s concrete poems. How was the music on the record influenced by his writing?

The album’s main title and the Lax track titles came together post-recording. Since we were playing in a duo with each person offering material to be reasoned and acted upon, the loose reference to Robert Lax’s three concrete poems seemed to represent what we experienced in concert: musical stepping stones of different hues that combined to offer a complete poetic picture of our time on stage.

You wrote in the liner notes of your album with Lopez that “perhaps it was his constellation of drums and cymbals that prompted the thought of a metaphorical planetary system.” What was it about his setup that inspired you to name the record after a Galileo treatise?

The album name and composition titles came post-recording, although I was aware during the session of the constellation of circular glinting objects that constituted Ramon’s percussion kit. It was a short hop to “The Starry Messenger” idea, since it was Ramon who suggested in the first place to record together. And he was indeed the “messenger,” bringing his sound universe to the studio.

You play with Fernández and Lopez as the Aurora Trio. How did the collaboration with Fernández and Snekkestad happen, and how did taking drums out of the equation and adding Torben’s saxophone and trumpet come about?

As with many decisions concerning ensemble formation, the melting pot of musicians meeting through circumstance often seeds a future collaboration. During the first concerts with my Blue Shroud Band in 2014, I witnessed an astonishing meeting-of-minds and energy between Torben and Agustí. There is certainly a special clarity, and one might say a different way of working, with the absence of percussion, which we and the audience have enjoyed particularly.

Your history with Parker is the stuff of legend. Can you explain the musical bond you share with him, and what your secret is to playing with Lytton?

The answer to this question could give rise to a book. To be succinct: Our musical history has been long and constant, even with, at times, a paucity of opportunities to play. What has been, for me, totally absorbing and exciting is the intellect behind the music, but also the ability to surprise, and a constant renewal of deep communication over this long time.

What did you take away, free improv-wise, from Bailey that helped define your own aesthetic and technique?

It’s hard to say precisely what I learned improv-wise from him. You see, we entered into a musical space researching similar tactics. So, in Iskra 1903 with Paul Rutherford, the “string section” was, so to speak, working together, formulating a soundscape supporting the trombone. The addition of the volume pedal to my amplified bass allowed me to match some of Derek’s already sophisticated manipulations of sound and hardware. So, you might consider this a positive influence. DB

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