There's something irresistable about the sound of a free-improvising big band up close and in your face: winds and brass roaring and swirling in a hot caldera of molten sound, drums pattering and cymbals slashing, a pianist darting out now and again for surprising little cameos. Since it was founded in 1966, Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra has been among the foremost of such units. During its illustrious if necessarily sporadic career, the band has engaged in everything from full-bore freak jazz to relatively structured graphic-score compositions; in 1974 it even made a memorable recording with a choir from Hamburg's NDR Radio.
Over the years, Globe Unity has included most of Europe's most powerful and distinctive voices, among them Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, Willem Breuker, Manfred Schoof, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Jaki Liebezeit, Paul Lovens and Paul Lytton. Non-European guests such as Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Bob Stewart and Alan Silva have swelled its ranks on occasion.
Recently, Lewis became the director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, which -- in conjunction with the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and Jazzmobile -- has just launched the first Columbia/Harlem Festival of Global Jazz, running through September 29. A complete schedule of events, including an all-star band co-led by David Murray and Kidd Jordan and a hugely impressive lineup of rare films and videos, can be found here.
The first major concert of the festival, presented tonight (Thursday, Sept. 20) at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Harlem, featured a rare local appearance by the Globe Unity Orchestra, reactivated in 2002 after a layoff of more than a decade. Also on the bill was the great French bassist Joëlle Léandre's Octet, performing an hour-long composition called "Satiemental Journeys." (The seeming peculiarity of an all-white, mostly European roster kicking off a festival in Harlem was inescapable, which may or may not have been Lewis's point.)
As its name suggests, "Satiemental Journeys" was inspired by Erik Satie. Rather than adapting or even quoting his music outright, however, Léandre sought to evoke a sense of, in her own words, "his writings, his music, his journeys and his personality -- a provocateur in the spirit of Dada." She goes on in her program note to say, "I welcome and watch for the utopia of what tomorrow's composition could be, without all these hierarchies, roles and rules."
Admirable in theory. But in practice, "Satiemental Journeys" felt discontinuous, arbitrary and mannered. Much of what transpired suggested a vision of Satie glimpsed exclusively through the prism of John Cage, emphasizing randomness and quirk at the expense of a generous simplicity that seems equally fundamental to Satie's music.
That's not to suggest there was nothing to enjoy; the exceptional band Léandre led assured a steady stream of quality moments. Apart from the terrific clarinetist François Houle and violinist Mary Oliver, most of these players were unknown to me, although I'd at least heard of tuba player Melvyn Poore -- who provided a showstopping moment with an otherworldly solo played through a saxophone mouthpiece. The group also included flutist Cécile Daroux, trumpeter Guy Bettini, pianist Michael Berger and percussionist Hannes Clauss.
All provided outstanding moments as this piece cycled through sentimental melodies, inspired improvisations, elements of absurdist theater and angular ensemble passages reminiscent of some of Anthony Braxton's writing.
In the end, however, what "Satiemental Journeys" seemed to lack was an underlying momentum that might have made this series of disparate episodes cohere into a unified statement. What resulted, despite the stellar details, was a seemingly random clash of pretty tunes and quirky bits, with no real clue as to what connected them. Maybe that was Léandre's point, but I can't help thinking there's considerably more -- and in some ways, rather less -- to Satie than that.
After a lengthy break, Globe Unity took the stage with a healthy mix of veteran kings and new jacks. Along with Schlippenbach, the old-guard members included Parker, Schoof, Lytton and Gerd Dudek. A clutch of younger players -- trumpeter Axel Dörner, trombonists Jeb Bishop and Nils Wogram, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love -- brought an infusion of fresh ideas, not an easy task when playing with musicians once assumed to have taken their instruments to the outer extremes of technical virtuosity. Completing the lineup were trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo, who has been working with Globe Unity for a few years now, and an Italian clarinetist-saxophonist whose name I jotted down as Daniel (or Daniele?) Zingaro, about whom Google has yielded absolutely nothing. [EDIT: The saxophonist's name was Daniele D'Agaro; see Jeb Bishop's comment, below.]
Lewis announced that the band was dedicating its performance to the memory of anarchic British trombonist Paul Rutherford, a longtime member who passed away in August. (AllAboutJazz.com has a valuable page of reflections from his colleagues.) From the opening bars, it seemed clear that some organizational strategy must have been in place. Solo and ensemble passages alternated with a regularity that was structurally satisfying, almost but not quite verging on predictable. Somehow, the players must have been feeding signals to one another.
Schlippenbach kicked things off with a stabbing two-note figure, accompanied by rustles and murmurs. The music assumed greater volume and density fairly quickly, but it rarely seemed overbearing: it expanded and contracted like a mighty lung. The two drummers, though largely invisible from where I sat, provided a fascinating contrast in approaches: Lytton offered the familiar akimbo splatter of European free improv, while Nilssen-Love seemed more goal-oriented, more willing to impose direction with stabbing accents placed like thrown elbows. (That, too, might have been a pre-planned stategy.)
In one sense, Globe Unity's set was as old-fashioned as a Jazz at the Philharmonic swing summit: massive ensemble passages alternated with lengthy solo spotlights. But while a wild ruckus was raised throughout the hour-long set, the most memorable moments were also generally the quieter ones.
Dörner, who played a trumpet equipped with both valves and slide, blew microtonal melodies and offered fair impressions of an industrial wet-vacuum cleaner and a chugging steam locomotive over a bed of glowing pedal tones from winds and brass, with percussion flashing at lowered levels. If I had to pick a single high point in the performance, this was it.
Cappozzo concentrated on mellow melodies on fluegelhorn over Lytton's shimmering brushwork. An amazing solo by Bishop, concentrating on a relatively limited series of pitches varied with slide position and mutes, was accompanied by Schlippenbach on a piano whose strings were treated with a variety of implements, including antique cymbals and a cheese grater. When
Zingaro D'Agaro joined in on clarinet, it sounded like a Dixieland breakout in the middle of a Chinese opera.
Wogram took the final solo, an effective study in blatty low notes, even if he tended to lean too often on what sounded like an impression of a sports car shifting gears. He was also responsible for another of the set's most sublime moments. After his solo, the full ensemble erupted; as it subsided, a haunting whistle floated above the din. Eventually the source was revealed: Wogram, his horn lowered, was singing harmonic overtones using Asian techniques. It was completely unexpected, and utterly intoxicating in context.
Without question, Globe Unity's ferocious roar provided the kick everyone at the show must have anticipated. But it was the contrast provided by those subtler moments from Dörner, Bishop and Wogram that made those tumultuous climaxes so effective.
Peter Evans - Peter Evans Quartet (Firehouse 12, due in November)
Tyshawn Sorey - that/not (Firehouse 12, due in November)
Kiss - Animalize and Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions (Mercury)
John Corigliano - The Red Violin Concerto; Sonata for Violin and Piano - Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (Sony Classical)
Philip Glass - The Voyage - Landestheater Linz, Bruckner Orchester Linz/Dennis Russell Davies (Orange Mountain Music)
Bohuslav Martinu - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 - National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine/Arthur Fagen (Naxos)
Eric Moe - Tri-Stan - Mary Nessinger, Sequitur/Paul Hostetter (Koch International Classics)
Jean Sibelius - Violin Concerto in D minor; Magnus Lindberg - Violin Concerto - Lisa Batiashvili, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Sony Classical, due Oct. 2, 2007)
Arch Enemy - Rise of the Tyrant (Century Media, due Sept. 25, 2007)
King Crimson - Augsberg, Germany, March 27, 1974 (DGMlive.com download)
Iskra 1903 - Chapter One (Emanem)