Review: Fred Frith, Roscoe Mitchell & George Lewis with the BBCSSO

First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

In the programme note for his 2003 orchestral work The Right Angel, Fred Frith tells a story about the first time he played electric guitar with an orchestra. It was 1974, he remembers, and “the entire back row of the orchestra made a show of putting their fingers in their ears”.

What a difference a few decades can make. This concert hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov celebrated three giants of improvised music: guitarist Frith, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist/computer musician George Lewis. They presented orchestral scores that were intriguing, especially Lewis’s: his 20-minute Memex (written for the occasion) channels the creative scope of computer music through the visceral brawn of an orchestra — cue exciting spacial flux, shifting perspectives and ultra-vivid timbre.

Mitchell’s NONAAH is the latest incarnation of a piece first written for alto sax in 1972. Its solemnity and gravitas suits the full forces, but the orchestration is fuzzy; I missed Mitchell’s spry solo delivery during the lumbering ensemble lines. In The Right Angel, a barefooted Frith wove poetic guitar effects among warm orchestral textures, now commenting, now questioning, occasionally provoking a cheeky clatter.

But the highlight of the evening saw the three guests doing what they do best: an improvised trio, no orchestra. It proved an extraordinary piece of spontaneous composition, full of wit, ferocity, grace and proper listening. Mitchell, slight-framed and dapper-suited at 73, led with a stream of full-throttle squawks that eventually faded into the primary colours of a simple, sunny guitar tune. Lewis and Frith drifted through bluesy bass lines, industrial noise and gently throbbing pedal notes. The end was mysterious, a little melancholy and very beautiful.