Portraits is a sprawling, ambitious work composed by bassist Barry Guy that brings together musicians from across the British jazz/improv spectrum, from free music luminaries Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, and Phil Wachsmann to somewhat more jazz-based players such as Paul Dunmall and Trevor Watts. The album contains seven main "portraits," each distinct from the next, which are tailored to spotlight the various soloists as well as the different smaller working units contained within the larger 17-piece ensemble (for example, the Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton trio in "Part III" or Iskra 1903, with Rutherford, Guy, and Wachsmann, in "Part I"). In between these main sections are shorter, freely improvised subsections that fit into a more sparse, non-idiomatic vein. As one might expect, there is some challenging music in this set. "Part I" has sections of apocalyptic horn-section darkness that recall the Jazz Composer's Orchestra of America's more foreboding moments, while "Part III," the album's climax, has a frightening extended solo by Parker (in circular breathing mode), backed by a rapidly shifting accompaniment, lending a sort of hall of mirrors effect. Surprisingly, though, there is also a good bit of material, specifically on the second disc, that is actually quite accessible. "Part IV" has shades of Gil Evans as well as a sunny, South African-tinged melody, while "Part V" is a lush, tear-stained ballad that hits some of the same nerves as the more restrained parts of Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The set ends with a celebratory anthem of a piece that almost bursts open at the seams, with saxophonist Dunmall's and cornetist Marc Charig dueling atop a densely packed horn arrangement and a hard-swinging rhythm section. There is so much detail and variety within Portraits' 114 minutes that it is nearly overwhelming to try to digest it all one sitting, but it is well worth delving into in it smaller doses as avant-garde/big-band marriages of this caliber are rare events.
Barry Guy (bass); Henry Lowther (trumpet); Marc Charig (cornet); Jon Corbett (trumpet); Paul Rutherford, Radu Malfatti, Alan Tomlinson (trombone); Steve Wick (tuba); Howard Riley (piano); Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Simon Picard, Peter McPhail, Paul Dunmall (reeds); Phil Wachsmann (violin); Barre Phillips (bass); Paul Lytton (drums)