At last month's Havana Jazz Festival, however, a number of British acts, including Ronnie Scott and his sextet, Andy Sheppard's In Co-Motion and the Jim Mullen Band, were on the bill. This perhaps had less to do with the anglophile preoccupations of that nation's jazz fans, than with the fact that Soho's Ronnie Scott's Club was the festival's co-promoters, enabling the event to book not only British musicians but American acts that the cultural and economic blockade of Cuba by the US customarily forbids. As a result, the list of attractions mixed such established Cuban bands as Irakere with some of the club's regular return bookings, such as Roy Ayers, Airto and Flora Purim, Irene Reid and Chico Freeman. Rubalcaba, who was booked to appear, didn't make it; Sandoval, who wasn't, is no longer a name to mention since his defection from Cuba two years ago.
From the first of six nightly concerts in the open-air plaza of Havana's Casa de Cultura, it was clear that the large and appreciative Cuban crowd liked their jazz hot. The Scott sextet were received with polite enthusiasm but Roy Ayers and band, playing a furious form of soul-jazz, tore the joint apart. Saxophonist Ray Gaskins, who somehow manages to play the highest and funkiest of alto saxophone breaks while dancing on one leg, was one of the festival's biggest hits. 'I'm going back just as soon as I can,' he said on the plane home. 'They didn't know who I was, but they treated me like Dizzy Gillespie.' Even better was the Chicago tenor saxophonist Chico Freemen, who demonstrated his superb control of 'circular breathing' - taking in air through the nose while blowing continuously through the mouth - by simulating the sounds of a couple reaching orgasm.
At the final jam session, the Americans took over the show. Ayers cued in Freeman, Gaskins and a Cuban trumpeter to improvise a JB's-style horn chorus while a growing number of under-employed percussionists fought to get at the limited battery of congas and timbales. The Festival is supposed to be biannual, but such was its success that it may have to re-convene next year due to popular demand.
How free is free jazz? Sometimes it seems that totally improvised music is as heavily weighed down by tradition as any banjo-toting trad band. Even the expressions on the musicians' faces are elaborately coded, ranging from the wan and spiritual to the seriously grim. Often, the music at free jazz gigs appears to follow a rigid set of conventions; first there's the slow, sensitive bit, then the all-out thrash, then the slow bit again, with long, meandering solos in between.
Putting these kind of thoughts to Barry Guy is like trying to tell Georges Seurat that painting with dots is a waste of time. A virtuoso bassist and composer as well as the director of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra - which begin a British tour this Thursday - Guy has been a veteran of the British and European improvised music scene since the Sixties.
'The music is not convention-bound in the sense that we have rigorous pieces of music on paper in front of us,' he says. 'But the same procedures go on in improvised music as in composed music. If we have a slow, sensitive section and then a loud section, it's just like Beethoven's 6th where there's a quiet movement and a loud and boisterous movement. Life is like that and if we didn't vary the musical material in this way then critics would ask where's the quiet bit, or where's the loud bit. You can't win]
'At the end of the day the main thing is that the musicians present a type of music that is memorable, that is honest and trustworthy and that makes people happy. If it doesn't fulfil all of the expectations of the listeners, I can think of many, many musics in the world that don't fulfil my expectations.'
Guy, who began his musical career playing in a trad band, is an accomplished classical musician as well as an improviser, and therefore proof against that old bebop slur that free musicians can't play properly. Until recently he performed with the Academy of Ancient Music and the London Classical Players. 'But I decided to knock it on the head,' he says, 'because I wasn't giving enough time to the LCIO and to improvised music. I had this feeling that I was going to get to the age of 60 still sitting in a recording studio, still playing baroque music and regretting every moment of it. It was very interesting to be involved with the early baroque, early instruments avant-garde - or should that be pre-garde? - as we were researching as much as we research with improvised music but it kind of got hijacked by the record companies.'
The London jazz Composers Orchestra is a remarkable group, combining improvisation with complex written structures. It's also been around for a long time: the Orchestra's first recording, Ode, was made in 1972 and many of the original members remain in the current line-up. The music for the tour is a new, specially commissioned suite composed by Guy called Portraits. The written score runs to more than 100 pages but, Guy insists, there will still be plenty of room for improvisation.
The Dutch alto saxophone Player Candy Dulfer was once famous in Holland for being the daughter of Hans Dulfer, the celebrated jazz tenor saxophonist. Now Dulfer pere risks becoming known only as Candy's father. With her second EMG album, Sax-A-Go-Go, released today, Candy is being pushed for major success, her appeal resting at least partly on the novelty-value of a pretty young peaches-and-cream complexioned blonde playing low down and dirty R&B licks.
At a Candy Dulfer concert in Utrecht recently, Hans claimed to be unconcerned at any change in his fortunes. A veteran of the Dutch jazz wars - ostracised from the Bimhuis free-jazz establishment of which he was a founder member for playing sax in the heavy metal style of Slayer and Metallica - Dulfer has learned not to care. A charming and humorous man with an elaborate Bobby Charlton-style coiffure, tight jeans and cowboy boots, Dulfer plays Amsterdam's Cafe Alto each Wednesday night. Candy's tough, bluesy style on the alto, comes, he says, from her exposure to his own tenor playing. 'My parents weren't interested in music and now I look back and think that I lost 17 years because of it. With Candy, she was hearing music in the house even before she was born. Unlike me, she can play perfectly by ear. She listens to a record and asks me to repeat the phrase. I can't do it but she can.'
Harry Guy and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra play the Queen Elizabeth Hall (071 928 8800) on Thursday 4 March; Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton (0703 671771) on Saturday 6 Match; Irish Gentre, Leeds (0532 480887) on Thursday 11 March; Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (061 273 4504) on Friday 12 March; Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham (021 236 3889) on Sunday 14 March; University Hall, Bath (0225 826777) on Thursday 18 March; Wide Theatre, Bracknell (0344 484123) on Friday 19 March. Before Thursday's QEH performance, at 6.30pm, Barry Guy will talk about the LCJO to Brian Morton, admission free.
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