Saturday, September 22, 2007
large-group jazz/improv can really make me sort of sad. sometimes it's more like mad, but i think sad is the more accurate word, simply because it really bums me out to not be able to discern individual voices.
at times this feeling moved close to outright despair during Globe Unity Orchestra's set at the Shabazz Center on Thursday night. the group, around since the mid-'60s, is strangely named since it's really a largely European group, convened by pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach and featuring the cream of the Euro and British free-improv scenes. the band played uptown as part of the very cool Columbia/Harlem Festival of Global Jazz. (that name, and the festival's way-uptown settings, seems to be an attempt to reconcile the current academic slant of jazz with its roots in Harlem.)
the lineup was sort of a mystery beforehand. there were a few legends in there: saxist Evan Parker, Schlippenbach himself, drummer Paul Lytton; as well as some leading lights of the current scene: drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, trumpeter Axel Doerner. they played for what felt like about 90 minutes--it was a rough but enjoyable set with sublime highlights.
the issue i raised earlier was a recurring problem for me. there's something really powerful about hearing a ten-piece band blow and bash their guts out simultaneously--for about five minutes. then it just becomes an almost tragic matter--here you're looking at some of the most distinctive instrumental voices in the world (Evan Parker is the most obvious example) and you simply can't hear what any one of them is playing. this was due to a lot of factors: the microphones didn't do the saxes any justice, and also Nilssen-Love didn't seem to adjust to the room's boomy acoustics--he simply played way, way too loud for a lot of the set. i think he's a great drummer, but at times, this was sort of inexcusable for me.
a few of the players took it upon themselves to pierce the wall of sound. there was a solo mike set up and each player stepped up in turn, some simply riding the wave (Parker; trumpeter Manfred Schoof, who played a really fleet, steely, powerful and agile solo). when Doerner stepped up, though, time straight up stopped.
Doerner has been known for his sort of deconstructionist trumpet solos over the past decade or so--he's one of the innovators of the new school of minimal, pure-sound playing that also includes dudes like Nate Wooley and Greg Kelley. i couldn't really say who was doing what first, but that's the general vibe we're talking about.
anyway, so he's this short, sort of wispy, almost creepily composed dude. and amidst the cacophony, he just sort of strolls over to the mike and begins making the strangest fucking noises with that horn. he was playing a slide trumpet with an upcurved Dizzy Gillespie-style bell, but if you closed your eyes, he might have been playing the plumbing. even more than, say, Peter Evans, Doerner's playing just sounds wholly alien, but somehow scientific--it has a very cold and almost menacing quality. his solo was like a catalog of extended techniques--at one point he unscrewed one of the valves and was using his fingers to control the air flow--but somehow it was clinical in just the right way. it almost seemed like he was sternly reminding his colleagues to listen.
it had that effect on me. your ears get totally desensitized to that large-group soup, which can lead to lazy playing and lazier listening. but it was like a veil being removed when Doerner started in on his conjurings. simply put, nearly everyone shut up. i can't remember if he was on his own or if the drummers were keeping up a textural commentary, but damn, he just woke that scenario up in such a commanding way. my ears were very, very grateful.
suddenly there was Schlippenbach, with his curious, stabbing chords, each one mouthed like a fish; there was Parker, with gruff, at times abstractly bluesy statements. there was the trombonist Jeb Bishop, working really hard to get to the center of his horn. Paul Lytton understood what was happening: his accompaniment to later sections of the piece was busy, yet crisp, never just straight-up loud. i'm all for loud, but not when it seems to come at the expense of hearing, as with some of Nilssen-Love's work at this show.
when the band did roar itself back to full strength for the outro, the beast made more sense. this blast wasn't instead of hearing--it was more like an invocation. after the group had been atomized--spurred on by Doerner's heroic solo--i was happy to hear it rage again. but i don't think i'll ever prefer large-group improv to smaller ensembles. or maybe those moments of detail are all the more precious when they're harder to come by.
wanted to keep my own thoughts my own, so i haven't checked out Steve's account of the show yet, but i'm headed there now. he knows this music cold.