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George Lyle has died. Stewart Smith remembers the unsung great of the double bass

Stewart Smith reflects on the life of the Scottish jazz and improvising musician George Lyle

George Lyle, who has died at the age of 76, is an unsung great of the double bass, and a giant of Scottish jazz and improvised music. While his profile may have been relatively low outside Scotland, in his home city of Glasgow he was a hero. “Everybody loved George,” says saxophonist and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra co-director Raymond MacDonald. “An incredible musician and a gentle and wonderful man.” Living in London in the 1960s, Lyle was present at the birth of British free improvisation, and his lifelong commitment to free playing made him an inspiration to younger musicians.

For The Wire contributor David Keenan, who played with him in the punk-primitive free-jazz trio Tight Meat, Lyle was “the single greatest free improvising bass player in the UK”, whose tactile and complex style drew from “a buncha schools but [was] never fully resident in any of them”.

After hearing Lyle play with Daniel Carter and Fritz Welch at last year’s Counterflows festival, a friend described the bassist as “an organic machine”. That vigorous yet zoned quality is echoed in GIO bassist Una McGlone's description of Lyle’s “brilliantly clear, driving sound”, and the “beautiful economy in his note choice and phrasing”.

Sharply dressed, with a warm presence, Lyle was, as Keenan puts it, “old school hip” with “a very personal sense of time” that was reflected in the “casual, loping” way he walked. Music could often be heard coming from Lyle’s flat on Glasgow’s Belmont Street, where he would play bass and piano, and jam regularly with friends. Inside, the flat was a model of bohemian living, with books, records and musical instruments everywhere. He even had congas set up in the kitchen so he could play while waiting for the kettle to boil.

Lyle began playing the bass when he was 16 and discovered the avant garde via Schoenberg’s piano and violin concertos. Moving to London in the early 1960s, Lyle shared a house with fellow Scots Maggie Nicols and the bassist, tubaist and poet Lindsay Cooper (no relation to the Henry Cow bassoonist). He would frequent the city’s jazz clubs, where he saw the likes of Joe Harriot, Tubby Hayes, Albert Ayler, Peter Kowald and Barry Guy. While Lyle was playing regularly with friends, public performance was not a priority for him. As he told me in an interview last year, “I was there listening.” He did play one gig at John Stevens’ Little Theatre club, but as he recollected with a smile, “it was totally deserted”.

Lyle’s social circle in London included Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, then exiled from Brazil. “I met them through the guys I used to practise with a lot, Roland Chiswick, Chris Barton,” he recalled. “I did play a wee bit with Gilberto Gil, but not very long. They were all amazing people, amazing.”

Upon his return to Glasgow in the 1970s Lyle played in a number of bands, including Birth, who supported Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath at the city’s McLellan Galleries in 1973. A video of the concert was recently digitised for a Glasgow School of Art project and despite the degraded quality, Lyle can be clearly heard taking a remarkable solo around the 13 minute mark.

Lyle also played with the playwright and pianist Tom McGrath, and in 1975 joined the radical 7:84 Theatre Company. In 1979 Trevor Watts invited him to tour Greece and Italy in an incarnation of Amalgam that included AMM’s Keith Rowe on electric guitar and Liam Gennockey on drums. This group can be heard on the FMR box set Wipe Out.

In the 80s, Lyle was a lynchpin of the Glasgow scene, often playing in the pick-up bands for visiting musicians, and developing a sadly undocumented trio with saxophonist John Longbotham and drummer Nick Weston. Joining George Burt and Raymond MacDonald’s band in the mid-90s afforded Lyle more freedom as an improvisor, and the relationships forged in that group led to the founding of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra in 2000. MacDonald saw Lyle as “a hugely influential member of GIO. His approach to improvising [was] always warm and inviting, gently encouraging others into new places.”

A short film about Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra

In 2003, Lyle and several GIO cohorts contributed to David Byrne’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation, the sound track to David MacKenzie’s film of Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam. Four years later, Lyle joined Tight Meat for a tour with legendary saxophonist Sonny Simmons. As Keenan said “They hooked up so strong, both with a really weird, tangential relationship to blues which was profoundly future-focussed.”

Tight Meat with Sonny Simmons, Portand Arms, Cambridge, 2007

Lyle’s most recent project was a duo with percussionist Fritz Welch, who he met through GIO. Their Bandcamp release Fortified Echo was reviewed in The Wire 381. It’s a fitting testament to a musician who, as Alex Neilson puts it, was “always totally open to hearing new things and moving in new directions”.

George Lyle & Fritz Wech – Fortified Echo