At the fiery cataclysm that ends all creation, Alexander von Schlippenbach may get a reprieve for being the one of the most significant European musicians of the past 40 years.
His body of work is extensive but he is most known for two radically different spheres of accomplishment: small group work beginning with Gunter Hampel's 1965 quintet which morphed into the Manfred Schoof Quintet (on par with the second Miles quintet) and the trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens; and ensembles as the founder of the Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO), a group that has set the standard for large format improvisation worldwide.
Schlippenbach has continued to work steadily but there has been a dearth of recordings since 2000, a year that saw the release of unearthed GUO from 1967 and 1970 and a discovered 1976 quintet recording. A parallel can be drawn to the past few months of 2003, when two new albums, Globe Unity 2002 , released by the Swiss imprint Intakt, and Broomriding , by the Evan Parker-run Emanem offshoot Psi, saw Schlippenbach still working in his two preferred formats: a newly reformed GUO and a recording with an exciting new quartet.
The two new albums, released in the unstable post-FMP European world, have two immediate connections - covers created by the same artist, Marina Kern, and being bass-less. The second is actually no surprise as Schlippenbach during his storied career has worked almost exclusively with only two bassists, Buschi Niebergall and Peter Kowald (apart from an occasional bassist in his other large ensemble the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra). With those two having sadly departed, chances are Schlippenbach will shy away from the low end until he finds someone who understands his complex vision.
Other than these shared facets, comparisons can be made as always with free recordings. However, with the GUO Schlippenbach is the ringleader - guys like Parker, Schoof, Peter Brötzmann and Paul Rutherford are not easily pushed around - participating in an equitable formation of bombast. His new quartet, with long-time foil Paul Lovens on drums, Rudi Mahall on bass clarinet (a player he raves as being the freest in Europe) and Tristan Honsinger on cello (maybe best known as a current member of the ICP Orchestra), is his own project, certainly buoyed by the contributions of its members but squarely drawing from his own well of innovation.
Globe Unity Orchestra
Globe Unity 2002
Globe Unity 2002 is the first recording by this group since the FMP 20th anniversary album from 1986. The GUO always represented or reflected or maybe even directed the sphere of European jazz going on around it. Beginning as primarily German, it expanded to include the players from the burgeoning English and Dutch scenes before going international with players from the Americas. An always revolving cast, this current nonet edition contains some stalwarts (Schoof, Brötzmann, Parker, Rutherford, Lovens) and adds some new, though quite established faces in Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, Hannes Bauer and Paul Lytton.
How to describe it? The GUO is not the Sun Ra Arkestra, nor is it the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, two other long-standing avant-garde big bands. At times during the near 74-minute live performance it is Eric Dolphy's vision multiplied by 9, at others a classical orchestra in mutiny against years of established practice. It is a vehicle for Brötzmann to try to force his lungs through the mouthpiece of his horn and spatter the audience with bloody chunks or for Evan Parker to play a latter-day snake charmer with swirling circular-breathed soprano sax lines. It is an opportunity for Schoof, semi-retired from performance, to revisit his halcyon days or Rutherford and Bauer to fence each other in a trombone duel to the death, all while Lovens, well-dressed, and Lytton, peering from behind his kit like a mad scientist, reinvent rhythm at a million miles per hour. Schlippenbach can be the glue or he can be the wedge - he acts as the missing bassist, an irresistible force meeting several immovable objects. Is it successful? This kind of music lives and dies usually in two ways. Individual moments are transcendent, a creativity which could never be distilled in a controlled environment. And as a whole, European free improvisation on this scale is like running top-speed through the Louvre; at the end, one is unsure what just happened but you feel quite good about it.
Alexander von Schlippenbach
Broomriding , a rare small group excursion away from his trio with Parker and Lovens is also successful but with plenty of room to grow. Schlippenbach, as evidenced throughout his career, is a big proponent of long-term musical relationships. He has not logged as much time with this quartet as with his normal trio and while the improvisations are fascinating, they do lack a certain brashness. This is not a criticism but rather perhaps a comment on Schlippenbach's new direction.
A quartet of bass clarinet, cello, piano and drums cannot hope to compete with wailing saxophones or manhandled basses. While certainly full of spunky moments, usually drawn out by Honsinger's circus mentality, this is actually an album of moods. Or to call upon the spirit of Eric Dolphy once more (as the quartet does by playing "Straight Up and Down" and "Something Sweet, Something Tender" from Out To Lunch), this is avant-garde slowly and thoroughly percolated. Schlippenbach stays away from his Cecil Taylor-isms and Mahall plays the bass clarinet the way it should be played, as an elegant morose instrument (younger players take note!).
Most of the tracks are ostensibly Schlippenbach compositions (“Broomriding 1-7”). Joining the two Dolphy tracks are two numbers by Honsinger. None of the 11 tracks on the 67-minute album are over ten minutes and several clock in under 5. Anyone who has heard Schlippenbach's solo piano album Payan (Enja, 1972) or the trio recording Elf Bagatellen (FMP, 1991) knows that he is equally comfortable playing short to-the-point pieces as he is unleashing for two straight hours. Given the instrumentation and the relatively new status of this group, Broomriding is more thriving for being broken up into shorter segments. The album as a whole can propel a listener who can then go back and assess the merit of the individual ideas presented. Certainly there are few better versions of Dolphy material extant than these.
Schlippenbach has an aura around him. He is the consummate European musician who has essentially created, recreated and will create once more the genre of improvised music. Two albums and two concepts, worlds apart, coalesce beneath his fingers.