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Globe Unity Orchestra - Hamburg '74

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Artist: Globe Unity Orchestra

Album: Hamburg '74

Label: Unheard Music Series

Review date: Dec. 2, 2004

In some ways, this past year has been business as usual for the Unheard Music Series. There were the given FMP/Brötzmann-related reissues, some releases of Dutch music so rare and delicate that it's debatable whether or not it ever existed at all, and – somewhat new to 2004 – a more pronounced influence of South African free jazz as both Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo appear on two unique releases. Yet the Unheard Music Series' recurring modus operandi is deceptive. Corbett has had something far greater in mind all along, and while politics have always been at the forefront of this music, this year’s releases seem to be directly confronting global perspectives of America.

Both Per Wallin's Burning in Stockholm and Mario Schiano's On The Waiting List are notable for quoting, perhaps critically, anthems and songs about America. Wallin's extended group improvisation essentially climaxes and dissolves by way of "America" from West Side Story, while On The Waiting List, by and large, seems to deal with Schiano’s perspective on American politics and jazz, most explicitly on pieces "From New York: Nothing” and "All It Takes." where Schiano sings – in a rasp reminiscent of Joe Cocker – that he doesn’t need to live in the USA to sing the blues. The recent re-release of the Brötzmann Clarinet Project marks a distinct place in Brötzmann's increasingly large UMS canon as one of the few albums with a large contingent of Americans in the supporting band. The effect and content is not necessarily as direct as the first two releases, yet there is a different, understated tone in the Clarinet Project for Brötzmann, not entirely due to the change in instruments. Each of these releases are indispensable for providing a view into the delicate relationships involved in cultural exchange, and are rendered more poignant not only by Bush’s staunchly unilateral politics, but his recent, nationally humiliating re-election. Fittingly, the increased international diversity and political fervor of UMS finds yet another major outlet on the newly reissued Globe Unity Orchestra record, Hamburg '74.

Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, in many ways, can be seen as a culmination of the political ideologies that were being espoused in the radical leftist German improv community. There is the intention of complete and utter freedom, heavy and visceral; not the province of idiom, but of unadulterated expression. The Globe Unity Orchestra also emphasized the importance of German free improvisers establishing bonds with surrounding European nations, united against the influx of post-war American imperialism. In Mike Heffley’s comprehensive dissertation, an interview with Peter Brötzmann wields some interesting perspective: "Brötzmann had gone on to say most of the American music is big business, commercial, not music; that American 'avant-garde' is more 'semi-modern improvised music with American funk rhythms underneath.' An overriding image in his take on America is that it is more a Disneyland than a Babylon, and that African-American pop and neo-conservative jazz (much like 'Dixieland') both are part of that. So we must look to Europe now for the real stuff even when it makes its own forays from 'free' to (what at least free-jazz purists would see as) 'pop.' "

Another German free improviser, Gunter Hampel, also has a particularly enlightening quote:

    "After the war, when the Americans came to town, our whole way of being Germans changed into becoming like Americans. The whole attitude of Germans was to forget about their own culture in order to become a member of the American culture; and the only culture they had at that time was in the jazz music, because everything else was just Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse, right?"”

The political ramifications of European Free Improvisation are exceedingly complex, and not necessarily anti-American. A widespread openness in regards to collaboration was always a valued point of pride. Importantly, however, this music has always been both virulently anti-imperialist and emphatically global, two discreet threads that seem all-too-confused in contemporary politics.

The newly reissued Hamburg ‘74 deals with the breadth of this subject in a particularly unique way. The term "free improvisation” could often be construed as a misnomer, as so much of the music coming out of this genre is deeply indebted to various strains in idiomatic jazz, most notably, of course, being the instruments. Peter Brötzmann’s For Adolphe Sax, for example, is essentially a jazz trio, and the ensuing large ensembles such as the Globe Unity Orchestra or the Brötzmann Sextet are clearly outgrowths of the big band lineage. Yet, Hamburg ‘74 is a wonderful example of Schlippenbach pushing the boundaries. Here, we find the Globe Unity Orchestra accompanied by an entire choir, set up almost explicitly to foil jazz proclivities with distinctly Classical reference points.

It is a remarkably surreal listening experience, often seeming to veer into musique concréte territory, implementing culturally-loaded sounds at key points in the deep abstraction. The choir chatters away, soloists boldly orate, the band breaks into German nationalist anthems, and the first piece, the album’s namesake, concludes fittingly with a sentiment that is truly global. The two pieces on Hamburg ‘74 deal with the added resource in somewhat contrasting ways, Schlippenbach’s "Hamburg ‘74” is the more political and referential, Manfred Schoof’s "Kontraste Und Synthesen” is more purely musical, the sound of a big band slowly descending into European freeform.

Schlippenbach seems to be about the birth, context and ideas of free improvisation rather than making explicitly freely improvised music. The addition of an entire choir certainly aids this allusion. There is a constant sense of the emerging free improviser, always at ends with a recurring choir, its whispers and applause representing the audience and its occasionally flagrant and dramatic singing standing for the classical tradition Schlippenbach envisions to leave behind. As the piece concludes with a Teutonic fanfare, Schilppenbach makes a clear plea for nationalist pride, a curious statement considering the GUO’s British members, yet not necessarily uncalled for.

Schoof’s piece, 10 minutes shorter than Schilppenbach’s, comes across as the lighter of the two pieces, yet it’s also indicative of a schism beginning to form between the "pure” free improvisers and an interest in more rigorously-composed material. That said, Schoof’s structure seems to honestly complement the musicians here, most of all being Derek Bailey, who is often buried in the mix on his FMP appearances. Here, his concluding guitar solo, mixed with the droning chorus and Peter Kowald’s convulsive bass playing, stands as perhaps the starkest, most vulnerable and beautiful moment on the entire recording.

In this recording, as in this year’s other Unheard Music reissues, there is a profound sense of artistic perseverance. The Unheard Music Series has become much more than an outlet for singing the praises of the unsung heroes of free improvisation, it is now a political imperative. The Globe Unity Orchestra record is a reminder of the place that extreme leftist politics had in music 30 years ago, and it challenges listeners, especially Americans, to work on restoring a dissenting culture, regardless of our country’s leaders.

By Matt Wellins

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