George Lyle Interview by Stewart Smith

George Lyle is an unsung hero of Scottish music. Active since the 1960s, the master bassist’s career has taken in free jazz, improvisation and bebop as well as theatre, poetry and performance. Chances are that if you’ve been to a Scottish free jazz or improv show in the past couple of decades, Lyle will have been there, either in the audience or on stage, a hip presence in wrap-around shades. At Counterflows he and percussionist Fritz Welch will perform with the great free jazz multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, a veteran of the New York Loft Scene of the 1970s. As anyone who saw Carter’s staggering set with William Parker at Arika Episode 4 in 2013 will attest, he remains a vital force. Teaming him up with Lyle, who writer David Keenan regards as “the single greatest free improvising bass player in the UK,” makes perfect sense. As Fritz Welch proclaims, “Getting those two guys on stage guarantees a full blown acceleration on the cosmic superhighway with extra gravy and 3D printed hope for the future!”

Counterflows director Alasdair Campbell recalls seeing George at jazz gigs in 1980s Glasgow. “I used to go to Sunday nights at the Tolbooth Bar in Trongate where the likes of Bobby Deans and John Longbotham could be found blasting out hard bop in their own very special way. More often than not George was there either playing or just watching what was going on… George was an inspirational figure, in the way he played and also in his openness to talk music with younger people who were stepping into improvisation.”

One such player is Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, who has been playing with Lyle for around 20 years. “It is an overused word but for a 15-year-old school boy listening to jazz for the first time and wanting to play jazz, George was the epitome of cool. Then, when I had a flat in Belmont Street I used to walk past a house that always had jazz music filtering out into the street. At that time time I was still playing guitar in a pop band and had only just started playing the saxophone and the music always sounded really exotic – it was years later I realised it was George playing free jazz with his friends. When George joined the Burt MacDonald group it was amazing because George has played a big part in my introduction to jazz and now he was playing in my band… His approach to improvising is always warm and inviting, gently encouraging others into new places. ”

Una McGlone, double bassist with GIO and Sonic Bothy speaks of the “brilliantly clear, driving sound” of George’s jazz playing. “He has a beautiful economy in his note choice and phrasing. As an improviser he has a sensitive creative response to all the music, environment and people around him, but remains very much himself too – that’s always a challenge in free improv I think.”
So to that Belmont Street flat we go. The place is a bohemian dream, filled with musical instruments, records, books and art. A Thelonious Monk Fakebook sits on the piano stand; Lyle explains that he’s been playing Monk tunes with saxophonist friend. By the piano he keeps his basses and a berimbau, a Brazilian instrument comprising of a wooden bow, a steel string and a gourd resonator. The idea is to whack it with a stick, but Lyle plays it like a bass, his fingers rippling over the taut string to produce beautiful single note meditations. Later, while I’m waiting for coffee, I hear hand-drumming coming from the kitchen. As I discover, Lyle has a conga set up by the window. As Welch says, “That man eats, drinks, talks and dreams music!”

Lyle began playing when he was 16, with he and his brother sharing a passion for music. “Under his influence I listened to a lot of Lee Konitz, with Percy Heath on bass. I wasn’t educated in music, but I read about this guy Schoenberg and I bought an album of his piano and violin concertos – it had a great cover, a Picasso, his portrait Three Musicians – and I really liked it. I didn’t have any problem with it. I didn’t have a musical background so I didn’t have any expectations. I also listened to a lot of Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites.

“I studied with this guy who played in the orchestra at the Glasgow Empire, a variety theatre, and every Saturday I practised with him. I didn’t do many gigs at that time, I wasn’t really out and about. Occasionally I’d get a gig, but I wasn’t too worried about that. But then in the early sixties I went down to London and I started to play down there. Mostly with friends who I’d met, not really doing many gigs.”

I notice a copy of the British jazz writer and photographer Val Wilmer’s memoir Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This on one of Lyle’s book shelves. In the book, she paints a vivid portrait of a London thrumming to the sound of visiting blues and jazz musicians, as well as the new generation of players creating their own distinctive British modern jazz.

“I did hear Joe Harriott playing with Phil Seamen on drums, that was a great band. Coleridge Goode on bass. Shake Keane on trumpet. That was a really good band. Tubby Hayes I heard, he was an amazing player, just an awesome player. Certainly there was a lot of stuff going on. There were a lot of people visiting – Gary Peacock was visiting with Albert Ayler.” Other great bassists George recalls seeing back then include Barre Phillips and Peter Kowald.

During this period, George mostly hung out at the legendary Little Theatre Club. Established in 1966 by John Stevens, Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford, this tiny West London club, held in a small room up four flights of stairs, became the hub of the British free music scene. “They had Barry Guy playing and he was pretty awesome, just a young guy then. He was pretty amazing man. I was there listening. I did play there with the people I was playing with, but it was totally deserted, I don’t think there was anyone there. I liked the Little Theatre Club.”

In addition to the Little Theatre Club gig, George and his friends recorded music for a student film. “Somebody’s girlfriend was doing something at the film school, so we did the soundtrack. I never saw the film, I don’t have a tape of it.”

George also has fond memories of psychedelic London, recalling Pink Floyd’s infamous show at the first of the Crystal Palace Garden Parties in 1971, where the band managed to kill all the fish in the pond with underwater smoke bombs and a giant inflatable octopus.

“Everybody was pretty spaced out. It was that time, y’know. A lot of heads around. Most people doing hallucinogenics. It was a great show. They were playing a bandstand in front of a lake. It was a nice setting. Gradually during the gig we saw some ripples in the water and you had some inflatable creature gradually coming out of the water. It was pretty cool.”

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Mention of the Brazilian acts at Counterflows prompts George to drop another revelatory anecdote: socialising with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who were exiled to London in 1969 by Brazil’s military dictatorship. ‘They couldn’t work any more, they weren’t allowed to play. According to the army they were doing controversial things, but they were just doing normal things, asking for human decency and respect for everybody. That was a fascist, heavy duty dictatorship. I happened to meet them socially. I did play a wee bit with Gilberto Gil, but not very long. They were all amazing people, amazing. I met them through some other friends I was playing with, the guys I used to practice with a lot. Bass clarinet player, Roland Chiswick, Chris Barton. They met all the Brazilians socially somehow, and that’s how I met them. They were a super-talented bunch of people. They were having a hard time. They were making the best of it, but they wanted to be in Brazil. They were really unhappy with the situation and what was happening to their friends, people in jail. That dictatorship was pretty heavy.”

George was one of several Scottish jazz musicians working in London at the time. “I didn’t meet Ken Hyder but certainly I met Maggie Nicols in the sixties. Later on I did some gigs with Maggie. I ended up staying in the same house as she did, it was all bedsits. And also a pal of mine, the bass player Lindsay Cooper, who died a couple of years ago. He was around the scene then and lived in the same house. He was an influence because he was out playing much more than I was. He was playing with a lot of really good people. Lindsay was a writer as well. He was a talented artist too.”

Another Scot at the centre of the London counter-culture was Tom McGrath, poet, jazz pianist and founding editor of underground bible the International Times. “He brought a lot of Beat poets over, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs. It was pretty exciting. I played off and on with Tom from the sixties onwards, when we got the chance.”

McGrath returned to Scotland in the late 1960s, becoming involved in Glasgow’s music and literary scenes. As a director of the music organisation Platform he brought Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the city before founding the Third Eye Centre in 1973, the experimental arts lab which lives on today as the CCA. McGrath’s video recordings from the time offer an amazing insight into the period of cultural renewal Edwin Morgan has described as ‘The Scottish Spring’. In addition to footage of Allen Ginsberg reading at Blythswood Square and a festival of sound poetry featuring Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing and Tom Leonard, these tapes feature music from the likes of Derek Bailey, Julius Eastman and Elton Dean. A video of the great Brotherhood of Breath at McLellan Galleries in 1973 begins with a set from the British free-jazz group Birth, featuring Lyle on bass. It’s an all too rare document of George’s early playing, but check his solo around the 13-minute mark: a beautiful example of the clear, driving and economical style McGlone mentions above.

Lyle returned to Glasgow permanently in the early ’70s, where he joined the radical 7:84 theatre company, founded by the Liverpudlian playwright John McGrath (no relation to Tom). Best known for the 1973 musical drama The Cheviot The Stag and the Black, Black Oil 7:84 mixed Theatre Workshop-style agitprop with Scottish music hall and folk elements, taking their productions to village halls and theatres around the country. Lyle came on board for 1975’s Little Red Hen which told the story of Red Clydeside and Glasgow’s socialist leaders, John Maclean, Jimmy Maxton, John Wheatley and Willy Gallacher.

As Lyle notes, while John McGrath directed and wrote the scripts, much of the performance was improvised by the actors. “It was that kind of theatre, very vibrant. It had great public appeal. It always had success if you turned up somewhere. The whole village would turn up.

“After that I got this trip with Trevor Watts, kind of accidentally because his bass player had disappeared. So I toured Greece and Italy, some good gigs actually. Even though I had to do what I was told, I had parts. But some good gigs, nonetheless.” This incarnation of Watts’ group Amalgam, featuring AMM’s Keith Rowe on electric guitar and Liam Gennockey, can be heard on the Wipe Out box set.

Lyle’s main project in the ’80s was a trio with alto saxophonist John Longbotham and drummer Nick Weston. “That trio played quite a lot of free music, as well as compositions. It was more or less John’s thing, he did quite a bit of writing for it. We tried to get a recording deal, actually, this would be ’86, ’87. We were hoping to get money from the Scottish Arts Council to make a recording, but that never happened. It was a shame because we had some nice pieces, some real nice music. It was lending itself to free playing, those kind of tunes. It’s not going at the moment, but it was going for a long time, we’re old friends.

“I also played in bebop bands. In the ’90s I started to play with the Kyle-Keddie Sextet, which was a good band, but more straight-ahead style. Just doing gigs, we had a broadcast at one point. Jim Vincent was a really good piano player. He was from a classical background, and that’s what made him a bit weird and interesting. I’m still in touch with him and we’ve been sending stuff to each other. It’s been in abeyance for a few months now, mostly through my health problems I wasn’t able to keep it going. But I would send him a bass part, he would send a piano part back and then we would join them up. That was quite interesting for a wee while. Just improvised.”

In the early 1990s, Lyle was also involved in Throwing Poems, a performance trio with poet Alasdair Paterson and movement artist Elspeth Dickie. “I played bass in that too. It was all improvised. But that was quite exciting and that developed. Elspeth’s partner came into it and we did a lot of stuff around schools, all kinds of improvised music. Working with people with people with special needs. That was really good. A lot of the kids had never seen a double bass. One of them thought it was a rocket. Those kids have a directness. They may have a lot of problems, but there’s an innocence to them.

“And then [in 2000] Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra came along. That was really good. In between times I worked with Raymond MacDonald and George Burt in their band, Burt MacDonald band. That was a kind of song-based band, but we were into free playing and tried to integrate the two things. That isn’t easy, but eventually it got there. They got in some guests. Keith Tippet played with us. He kind of stabilised it and opened it up at the same time. That was quite interesting. Lol Coxhill too. It gradually expanded. Still song based but with a lot of free stuff as well. And then GIO started and I met a lot of younger players there who were totally into improvised music. Neil Davidson, Peter Nicholson the cellist. Some jazzers too, because Robert Henderson plays in it. So that was quite a good few years.”

In 2003, Lyle and several GIO cohorts contributed to David Byrne’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation, the soundtrack to David MacKenzie’s film of Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam. “I remember David Byrne being so impressed with George that the asked him to stay behind when the session finished to play on some extra tracks,” says MacDonald.

In 2007 joined David Keenan and Alex Neilson’s punk-primitive free jazz outfit Tight Meat for a tour with legendary saxophonist Sonny Simmons. ‘Yeah. That was great fun. That was crazy actually. Cos Alex is a great drummer too, he’s brilliant. There’s a lot of good players up here.”

As Keenan and Neilson will attest, Lyle brought great power and sensitivity to the high-energy blow-outs of Tight Meat. “He was the spine of the sound,” says Neilson. For Keenan, Lyle’s playing with Simmons was a revelation: “They hooked up so strong, both with a really weird, tangential relationship to blues which was profoundly future-focussed.”

“I’ve always liked that high energy kind of playing so it wasn’t a complete surprise to me,” says Lyle. “I really enjoyed it. It was really fun and there was a lot of good music. I don’t think a lot of it was recorded. There was talk about putting something out, but maybe it didn’t measure up or it wasn’t possible.”

Lyle’s current project is a duo with drummer Fritz Welch. “I’ve always liked jamming at home. Over the years I’ve always had people come round here to just improvise. I met Fritz in GIO, but he lives just up the road so it’s easy for him to come and play, even for just half an hour. We’ve had quite a few good sessions in here together. That’s been going on for over a year. That’s been great. It’s totally free. Recently I started to play some piano and I’ve got a bamboo flute I sometimes play, so it’s quite varied. Fritz is interested in vocals, because he does a lot of noise things elsewhere, so we’ve started with a singing warm up, which is good, developing the relationship. That’s been ongoing, a lot of creative work. It’s all improvised, it’s not really planned. I like that.”

Stewart Smith

Portraits of George Lyle
Raymond MacDonald, alto saxophone, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

I been playing with George now for over 20 years but i first came across George’s playing when I was at school in the mid 80s. The first jazz concerts I attended were at the Blue Note Jazz club in the Sub Club and at the Third Eye Centre and George would often be the bass player in the pick up band for the visiting artists. it is an overused word but for a 15-year-old school boy listening to jazz for the first time and wanting to play jazz, George was the epitome of cool. Then, when I had a flat in Belmont street i used to walk past a house that always had jazz music filtering out into the street. A that time I was still playing guitar in a pop band and had only just started playing the saxophone and the music always sounded really exotic – it was years later I realised it was George playing free jazz with his friends that I heard every day when I walked past. When George joined the Burt MacDonald group it was amazing because George has played a big part in my introduction to jazz and now he was playing in my band. We’ve played all over the UK with him and in Europe and the States. Great memories of traveling across Lake Austin with him in a speed boat, past Lance Armstrong’s (George was a keen cyclist) house to get to a gig. We are all really excited and George is smiling quietly puffing on a cigarette. On that tour I also broke my toe after playing a gig with Stanely Jordan and George spent ages doing Reiki healing on my toe. George took his own double bass on that trip and the extra baggage costs on the way home ended up more than the return fare. George’s playing has a constant gravitas and groundedness. Always searching and probing – he has calmness and an endless generosity of spirit and this pervades all his music – George’s playing and presence gives you permission to be yourself and play what you want. He is always supportive and I think that makes the band play better. He embraces and welcomes everybody he plays with with a gentle and deep humanity that makes him universally loved. He has been a hugely influential member of GIO since the band’s inception – his playing always adventurous but never overbearing and always accommodating of whoever else is playing with him. His approach to improvising is always warm and inviting, gently encouraging others into new places.
Very often when visiting guests come they have stories to tell about George when they played and toured with him. He toured with Keith Rowe in Trevor Watts’ bands and played with Maggie Nicols when he lived in London. George’s constant presence on the jazz scene in Scotland is testament not only to his lifetime commitment to music but also his openness, versatility, skill, deep humanity as a musician.
I have also worked with George in lots of educational settings and we have run workshops in schools, community centres, hospitals – I remember asking the kids in one school what instrument George was playing and this little boy’s hand shot up and when I asked for an answer he just pointed to George shouted at the top of his voice “he’s an astronaut” – George gave a big reassuring smile as if to say “yeah man, of course I’m an astronaut.” We also had a very short lived band called Inspector Blakey and the Jazz Conductors that played a couple of gigs in art galleries where we composed work for the art on the wall. When we worked with David Byrne I remember David Byrne being so impressed with George that the asked him to stay behind when the session finished to play on some extra tracks.
There is a great moment in a short film made about GIO and George Lewis where all the musicians state the instruments we play very quickly. George steals the show in two words that convey his groundedness, friendliness and playfulness. He just says “double bass” but in those two words a life time of fantasticness is communicated in those two words. It is on Youtube and is worth watching just for those two words alone.
When we played in Paris with Lol Coxhill I remember him chuckling to himself as the next act completely wrapped themselves in selloptape and screamed into a microphone while rolling on paint on the floor. There is loads more stuff. Being stuck in a force 10 gale on the boat back from Shetland with George Lewis, Keith Tippett and Steve Noble was hilarious – waves hitting the high boat like a battering ram and we are flailing about drinking whisky in bar with George kind of surfing as he stands at the bar. Five of us sharing a common room in the youth hostel in Tobermory before our first gig on Mull. Listening to him and Harry Becket trade stories in Aberdeen – George Lyle is a national treasure!

David Keenan, author and critic.

I first got to know George through seeing the Burt-MacDonald Quartet play live. He was always the enigmatic, beatifically zoned presence in the background, often wearing black wraparound shades, that made them look hip. His playing was complex, drawing from a buncha schools but never fully resident in any of them. He has a very personal sense of time. You can see it in the way he walks down the street. You can spot him miles off by that casual, loping style he has. He is capable of playing very fast, brain-scramblingly, but there is never any sense of hurry or haste. He never states an obvious rhythm or time signature particularly and he tends to play around what you think he might be trying to say rather than just coming out and saying this note and this.
George’s profile may have suffered a bit in that he is a committed free player, he is into playing, and documentation and public performance don’t matter too much to him. He is always playing at home, most recently in a great duo with the percussionist Fritz Welch, who play at George’s flat in the west end of Glasgow every week or so. If you’re walking past you can often hear George playing bass or piano from the street – just look for the window with the dream catcher in it. His neighbours have shut us down several times.
George is a huge fan of black American free jazz and that’s really where he comes from but you’ll hear little of players like Jimmy Garrison or Charlie Haden or William Parker in his music. Not that he has any trace, really, of the Euro ‘improv’ style either but he does have more in common with someone like, say, Peter Kowald, a tactile complexity perhaps. I think he is the single greatest free improvising bass player in the UK. Plus he is old school hip, like cool, beat, psychedelic. The ladies love him and he has an incredible appetite, full stop, as well as a very calm, accepting spiritual vibe. He once got kicked out of a commune he was part of in London for loving too many ladies.
I played with him when he was a member of Tight Meat alongside myself on saxophone and Alex Neilson on drums as well as when we played with the saxophonist Sonny Simmons. Even at the age he is now, he is capable of going straight through the wall in terms of high energy constructs and his playing with Simmons was a revelation, they hooked up so strong, both with a really weird, tangential relationship to blues which was profoundly future-focussed. I think it’s a big deal that he is playing with Daniel Carter as Carter is the type of player that George is really closest to in terms of his own vision of powerful free playing and instant composition as spiritual exegesis. Can’t wait.

Alex Neilson, drummer. Trembling Bells, Crying Lion and Death Shanties

George is a fixture of the Great Western Road area of Glasgow. Like many people, I probably first encountered George strolling around that area in mid-December clad in sun glasses with a massive grin on his face, a Snickers bar in one hand and a rather large “roll up” in the other.
George seems totally fearless. He plays the bass with his whole body and with great openness and intelligence. He has digested the whole gamut of jazz- from Hot to Fire- and is always totally open to hearing new things and moving in new directions which is a very healthy way to be.
He brought a lot of class to Tight Meat (he’s a very attractive man). He was the spine of the sound. He was hilarious. He seemed to have endless stories (which are probably unrepeatable) about his time while living in London. Stories that would make Art Pepper wince.

Fritz Welch, drummer and artist. Peesseeye, Asparagus Piss Raindrop, GIO, Eight Thumbs, The Final Five, With Lumps…

I met George playing with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. Both of us being in the rhythm section we set up in the back. He is a warm and cheerful guy so we hit it off joking and hanging out a bit during breaks. I have always been impressed by George’s commitment to killing it all the time! That man eats, drinks, talks and dreams music!
We started playing together around Christmas 2013 or i guess it was just at the beginning of 2014. On that New Years Eve I had been in a DMT fuelled music analysis conference and a sonic guide in the form of Conlon Noncarrow’s crystallised robotic ghost told me to play music with George at least once a week in order to keep the universe in a state of perfect balance.
Our rehearsals usually consist of consuming the required very strong cups of coffee, then talking about politics or the weather and generally just shootin’ the shit and then we play music for as long as possible. We often discuss a desired outcome or expectation but often it is systematically moving molecules in relation to aural assimilation. Sometimes physical energy provides the limiter and sometimes is just a god damn clock ticking in our pockets.
We have been doing vocal duets for a few months. They initially started out as a means of isolating each of our tendencies to vocalize while we play our instruments. I’ve always been impressed with George’s low growls at the beginning of a phrase. The vocal pieces seemed like a logical method of pushing the lycanthropic tendencies of each of our interior wastelands.
We played a gig at the 13th Note on the same bill as a quartet I have called Eight Thumbs with Jer Reid, Shane Connelly and Dougal Marwick. The venue is too dark and smelly for our music. It was perfect for Eight Thumbs but me and George need something with higher ceilings and rounded possibilities.
I am totally stoked to play with George and Daniel! And I know George is really excited to play too. I have not done a gig with Daniel since 2001 but I did a session with him in NYC last summer which was totally inspiring. Getting those two guys on stage guarantees a full blown acceleration on the cosmic superhighway with extra gravy and 3D printed hope for the future!!

Watch the video of Birth, featuring George on bass, supporting Brotherhood of Breath at the McLellan Galleries in 1973!