Free jazz recordings have been the subjects of more scrutiny than perhaps any other kind of music. Hailed effusively as visionary and cosmic or derided thoroughly as shamelessly indulgent and noisy. While much free jazz can be ineffective, it removes one variable from the equation of recording: material. Sessions rooted in basic improvisatory frameworks rather than strict song structures allow what is important in jazz to be fully responsible: the musicians.
Perhaps then, it is best, despite being tedious, to simply name the musicians involved in this recently surfaced duet of live performances and let their collective and individual resumes speak for themselves. Multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel; reedmen Kris Wanders, Gerd Dudek, Willem Breuker, Heinz Sauer, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker and Michel Pilz; trumpeters Manfred Schoof, Jürg Grau, Claude Deron, Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko and Bernard Vitet; trombonists Jiggs Whigham, Albert Mangelsdorff, Malcolm Griffiths and Paul Rutherford; tuba player Willy Lietzmann; vibraphonist Karl Berger; bassists Buschi Neibergall, Peter Kowald and Arjen Gorter; guitarist Derek Bailey; drummers Jaki Liebezeit, Mani Neumeier, Sven-Åke Johansson, Han Bennink and Paul Lovens.
This album would be significant if only for the fact it involves virtually all of the major Western European and English free jazz players of the time. It would also be significant since, besides the original Schlippenbach “Globe Unity” LP (MPS 1966), this is the oldest work extant of the Globe Unity Orchestra, a group that, in various incarnations, pioneered free music for over twenty years.
The Globe Unity Orchestra, as it stands on these recordings, was the outgrowth of Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 1966 free jazz concept. Bringing together existing groups (the Manfred Schoof quintet and the Peter Brötzmann trio) as well as other free practitioners, the free jazz concept was no longer applied solely to the small coterie but towards a massive big band setting. The benefit was obvious: impact three or four musicians could not provide; the risk equally apparent. One has to admire the courage of Schlippenbach and his cohorts traveling this unmarked terrain and doing it so effectively. Free jazz at its best is not about method but all about result. Atavistic Records is to be lauded for releasing this material, especially with such excellent sound reproduction. At least some small audience is appreciating it; my local record store sold all 15 copies before the official street release date.
The disc contains two long tracks “written” by Schlippenbach. Mostly Europeans participate in the first track “Globe Unity ‘67”. “Globe Unity ‘70” exchanges some of the Europeans of the first performance for a number of Englishmen working in the same vein across the channel.
Describing free jazz is like assigning blame in a twenty-car pileup. However, it is much easier to determine whether the result is effective.
The first piece, clocking in at over 34 minutes is a gem. The listener’s interest never lags because different instrumental groupings are highlighted across the track, rather than 18 participants competing with each other. Beginning inauspiciously with a simple opening of cymbals, the rest of the group comes in with long unison passages quickly turning into pandemonium. The saxophones state quick ascending lines echoed by the other horns, morphing in and out of musical frenzy. The bassists add an unaccompanied dissonance with their bows until the chaos reappears, punctuated by jarring drum bursts. Playful trumpets leading into a beautiful section of flute, tuba and percussion follow thoughtful trombone passages. A manic trumpet-trombone duel ensues leading into a honky-tonk-like section utilizing mutes. Hampel’s marvelous flute makes periodic but stirring appearances. Schlippenbach’s piano sometimes drives the group forward, at other times is swept up by it. His keyboard work, supported by tympani and gong direct the group into a chord played repeatedly until the piece shifts gear into a drum-led section that ends suddenly to enthusiastic applause.
One very important thing about this release is how well the mastering was done. Every instrument is clearly discernable at all times, which is especially important in music with so much activity. Derek Bailey’s unique style is perfectly clear even in the louder sections of the second track. Unfortunately, it is much less effective than the early performance. The individual performances are good, especially the trumpets of Wheeler and Stanko and the drums of Bennink and Lovens, but the improvisations are not as cohesive. Two of the members from the just-formed group Iskra 1903 are present but the problems I find with that group are evident here. The ensemble as a whole never seems to gain any real momentum. There are some moments of interest: the dialogue at one point between Brötzmann and Bailey which leads in to the most energetic group passage of the 18 minutes. The rest is uninspired, never coming together spontaneously the way good free jazz does so often. Except for one moment in the middle, the pace is plodding and no one seems to want to push the improvisation in any particular direction. Rather then end on a high note, it just peters out.
It is hard to recommend this album without reservation. I find it to be inconsistent with “’67” really overshadowing “’70”. However, free jazz is very open to personal taste and others may find the quieter improvisations more to their liking. Nevertheless, for those whose tastes run in this direction, the album is an important document to have in order to understand much of the work that followed it.