Alexander von Schlippenbach and Globe Unity Orchestra in Lisbon

Alexander von Schlippenbach’s most reliable signature is the emphatic bass note with which he initiates an improvisation. Even though it rarely has time to decay before the pianist adds a jarring cluster or another musician jumps in, this stentorian note establishes not only the tonal gravity of what is to come, but it is emblematic of Schlippenbach’s gravitas as an improviser. Schlippenbach used this device to launch the performances of Globe Unity Orchestra and Schlippenbach Trio at this year’s edition of Jazz Em Agosto in Lisbon. The ensuing trajectories of the respective concerts, however, were determined roughly equally by every musician.

Within a second or two of Schlippenbach’s ignition of Globe Unity’s concert in the Anfiteatro ao Ar Livre, bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall made it clear that, as one of the newest members, he was taking a back seat to no one. Backed by only Schlippenbach and the churning pulse of drummers Paul Lovens and Paul Lytton, Mahall leaped through his instrument’s registers, his low notes grumbling and his high notes crying to create the semblance of antiphony. A long-time member of Globe Unity and a contributor to Schlippenbach’s other early manifesto-like project, the 1969 sextet session, The Living Music (FMP), trombonist Paul Rutherford played off this aspect of Mahall’s playing, and laid down a sleek counter line. In rapid succession, trombonist Johannes Bauer entered roaring, and clarinetist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky came in, capping the ensemble with piercing high notes. This opened the floodgates for the first of several explosive ensembles (a Globe Unity tutti should probably be measured by the Richter scale rather than in Decibels).

As the tutti subsided, tenor saxophonists Gerd Dudek and Evan Parker figuratively locked horns. Their respective styles represent two distinct branches of John Coltrane’s legacy. Dudek’s hard-edged tone is more directly linked to Coltrane’s sound with the classic quartet than Parker’s more textured attack. Both have moorings in the motivic development Coltrane employed in the mid-‘60s, but Dudek is more arpeggio-centric than Parker, who leans more heavily and more quickly into the cries Coltrane all but patented. However, they both value the culminating moment in every great Coltrane solo, the step onto the summit that opens the skies. Approaching from different angles, Dudek and Parker hit this spot at the same time and the energy of the music spiked. A staggered entrance by several musicians followed, with trumpeter Manfred Schoof’s thrilling chops being the catalyst for a second tutti.

In some aspects, the horns in Globe Unity’s ensembles approximated the functions of horn sections in traditional jazz orchestras. Globe Unity’s reeds laid the foundation with a rumbling mass of sound, which the slide-wielding Bauer and Rutherford repeatedly sliced to create mounting tension. At the optimum moment, Schoof and trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo swooped in with soaring long notes and pyrotechnics to create what would ordinarily be a memorable apex. However, the similarities with big band conventions end there; instead of a tidy climax, Globe Unity instead establishes a new baseline of intensity that they immediately ratchet up another notch.

These passages benefit from the addition of Lytton in 2002. Having recorded duo LPs with Lovens for the latter Po Torch label in the ‘80s, they know each other’s tendencies extremely well, and are a formidable tandem. The contrasts in their styles can be traced to their mechanics. Lovens forgoes ride toms; keeping all his drums at the same height allows him to whisk around the kit in quick circular motions, giving his work a distinctive propulsive feel. Lytton plays a conventional kit in this setting and uses a standard left hand grip, which gives his playing an almost pugilistic quality, one akin to Dennis Charles on “Air.”  Too often, dual drummers sacrifice lucid exposition for density and intensity, but that is not the case with Lovens and Lytton.

The strategy of using solos and duets between like instruments to connect the ensembles gave most members of the ensemble more than one opportunity to move to the foreground. Two improvisers stood out for their catalytic qualities. The first was Petrowsky, whose clarinet was reminiscent of John Carter’s because of his ability to maintain a rich woody low end and a piercing altissimo while racing through the registers, spooling out long, trenchant lines. On alto, Petrowsky’s squalls bore faint resemblance to Marshall Allen, circa the mid 1960s; but, Petrowsky also has the ability to jump cut between reed-gnawing textures and a cleanly intoned phrase. The other was Cappozzo, whose muted solo towards the end of the performance provided a well-timed downshift in energy. Alternately growling and chortling, Cappozzo tapped the implicit jazz of the piece, a role traditionally filled by Schoof. Subsequently, the trumpeters’ banter-filled duo was a highlight of the almost 90-minute performance.

Schlippenbach Trio performed the next evening in the Grandé Auditório. Though the pianist began the performance with the customary bass note, he used the type of large mallet ordinarily used on large gongs to strike the strings directly. While Schlippenbach manipulated the piano’s interior, Paul Lovens further punctuated the silence with small cymbal and drums sounds, while Evan Parker murmured on tenor. However, this is an ensemble whose currency is hard driving music, so it was, presumably, merely a matter of how soon and how fast the energy would be ramped up. The trio’s atmospherics lasted long enough not to seem gratuitous, but not long enough to imply a major change in their procedures Grinding through the lower gears, the interplay between Parker’s sputtered phrases, Lovens’ clatter, and Schlippenbach’s slurred block chords, never fails to be engaging.

A few minutes after the trio hit full stride, feedback from a stage monitor caused Parker to pull back and go offstage to consult with the technicians. Schlippenbach first dampened his attack and then laid out altogether to cut the feedback loop. Not only was the ensuing, pungent Lovens solo unexpected, but so too was the ruminative tone the trio took once the monitor had been squelched. Here, Schlippenbach mixed in devices that reflected his long study of Monk: angular motives; chromatic movement of dissonant chords using syncopated rhythms; and arpeggios that did not descend through the octaves, but rather nose-dive deep into the bass clef.  Parker’s lines had a slightly legato feel. Lovens let his sticks bounce a bit more than usual. They had backed into a rare, frictionless forward movement. Soon, they were burning hot, again.

The remainder of the hour-plus performance found the trio moving between similar peaks and valleys. They maintained their lightning reflexes throughout subsequent full-bore blasts, never once lapsing into lazy exercises of power. Some of the most satisfying music, however, occurred during moments of relative calm, particularly Schlippenbach and Parker’s respective unaccompanied solos. The pianist’s had a faintly discernable blues subtext and contained some brilliant figures; it ended far too soon. For all of their alleged predictability, Parker’s soprano solos never cease to amaze when experienced live. Even in a massive, dry space, the fine gradations of timbre and the weave of counterpuntal lines have a unique power. In a way, the three solos reinforced from oblique angles what the concert asserted in the main: Schlippenbach Trio exemplifies its namesake’s concept of a living music.