Global Unity Arrives in Montreal

Suoni per il Popolo festival report
By Ken Waxman

A willingness to book profound improvisers ignored by the commercial pseudo-Jazz behemoth that takes places later in the summer is what sets Montreal’s annual Suoni per il Popolo (SPIP) apart from other local festivals. For its 10th anniversary in late June, SPIP scored a major coup with the Canadian premiere of the all-star Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO) on the second of a three-night event.

Not only was the entire 11-piece ensemble featured for two sold-out shows at La Sala Rosa, a former social club on, St. Laurent Boulevard, the city’s storied Main, but on the first and third nights, the smaller Casa Del Popolo club, on the opposite side of the street was packed as it played host to three GUO break-out ensembles. All in all, the GUO put on an exceptional performance that confirmed the elevated regard in which the group has been held since it was organized by German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach in 1966. Notable as well were the two club sets on the final night by a trio made up of von Schlippenbach, German bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall and drummer Paul Lytton the subsequent night. However Casa Del Popolo performances by two differently constituted GUO ensembles the first night appeared more introductory than exemplary when, despite flashes of instrumental luminosity, an unconscionable raggedness seemed to permeate both sets.

In Montreal the GUO consisted of veteran Free Improvisers and notable younger players. Both von Schlippenbach and tenor saxophonist Gerd Dudek have been members from the beginning, while British tenor saxophonist Evan Parker and German drummer Paul Lovens joined in 1970. Experienced hands such as Lytton and German trombonist Johannes Bauer now tour with the band as well, while the remaining chairs are filled by younger European improvisers. They included French trumpeter/flugelhornist Jean-Luc Cappozzo plus a quartet of Germans, trumpeter Axel Dörner, trombonist Christof Thewes, alto saxophonist Henrik Walsdorff and Mahall.

Among the reeds it was Mahall who made the greatest impression. Gangly and energetic, his forceful improvising is often seconded by facial mugging, bandy-legged twisting and foot stomps. It’s as if the Tin Woodman was possessed by the spirit of James Brown. With the GUO, the bass clarinetist’s sometimes altissimo and often biting cries contrasted in broken octave cohesion with the more stolid improvisations from the tenor saxophonists. The soloist who most reflected the Jazz continuum, Dudek’s strained contrapuntal forays appeared to be heavily influenced by John Coltrane.

There were points in fact when Lytton’s and Lovens’ interaction reached such a boiling point of explosive cross beats when working with Dudek that the results resembled Trane’s final abstract work with Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali. Playing in tandem much of the time, the GUO percussionists also had moments of adroitness and finesse. Both rattle as often as they smack, use additional cymbals, wood blocks and other add-ons as part of their standard kit. They are as apt to hit the hi-hat and drum rims as the snare and bass drums.

Unique Solo Strategies

As the GUO’s unusually constituted rhythm section chugged along, soloists developed strategies to meld with it and with other horns. Leaving the drastic shifts from fortissimo to folkloric to Mahall, Parker’s contributions ranged from mid-range placidity, with divided timbres sensitively breathed, to snorts, honks, stutters, tongue slaps and key percussion. Even then, these advanced techniques such as Cappozzo’s rubato high notes or Lovens’ minute cymbal shrugs complemented others’ playing. Parker’s concentrated reed vibrations plus von Schlippenbach plucking and stopping the piano’s internal strings and Lovens’ response frequently created trio episodes in the midst of the large ensemble.

Cappozzo’s bear-sized hands often hid the panache of a prodigiously experienced brass man able to intimately maneuver either of his instruments. Although he took the first trumpet role at times, with fortissimo triplets rising out of a tutti, he was equally canny as a soloist. Holding his horn in one hand, he used the other as either a hand mute or for finger movements that pulled brass ripples from his bell without valve movement.

Meanwhile Dörner, who elsewhere confines himself to minimalist timbres, rarely showed that side. Instead his slide trumpet vamped alongside the other horns creating a skewed polyphony just this side of Dixieland. At one point he contrapuntally blasted grace notes alongside Mahall who responded with a nursery-rhyme variant. Another time Dörner cleanly articulated an expanded flourish, backed by a dual trombone obbligato. Bauer and Thewes had fun themselves, participating in the call-and-response runs and stepping forward for solos that ranged from chancy minimalist air expansion to hearty plunger blasts using cup or Harmon mutes. Bauer’s updated gutbucket smears were particularly effective.

Proving that the vocabulary of a large group doesn’t have to be limited by the past but can proffer intricately linked textures while leaving space for individualistic soloists, the GUO’s sounds that were both magisterial and lively.

Exquisite Essays in the Art of the Trio

Despite using a concert grand piano at the Sala Rosa, the intricacies of von Schlippenbach’s dynamic pulsing and inventive asides were often drowned by the massed exuberance of the GUO. A well-tuned upright gave him enough space the next night at the Casa Del Popolo however.

Over the course of two sets, the pianist, Mahall and Lytton interpreted mostly Thelonious Monk tunes their own way. The three added angularity to Monk’s already pointed melodies, gliding from one to the other without pause, highlighting links to earlier Jazz styles, while never negating Monk’s distinctiveness or their own.

Most notable was how core sounds were defined and presented in an unconventional group, with bass clarinet as the only horn and no bass player. Characteristically Mahall – like saxophonist Charlie Rouse with Monk – was von Schlippenbach’s chief foil. As comfortable in the chalumeau range as coloratura, Mahall’s highly rhythmic yet lyrical passages injected unselfconscious swing into his solos. Moreover his lines also revealed a mastery of stop-time runs. As he rappelled from the highest to the lowest pitches of his instrument at points he appeared at points to be playing call-and-response with himself. His portamento trills and stretched chords deflated to segregated puffs and split tones and contrasted nicely with to von Schlipplenbach’s dynamic range which encompassed hunt-and-peck percussiveness and supple extended glissandi.

Extended with wire brushes, knitting needles, wood blocks and unattached cymbals, Lytton’s kit provided the perfect back-up. Self-assured, he contributed a drum solo with woodblock thumps, clatter bump and clip-clops when the pianist segued into “Played Twice” – taken more staccato and much more joyously than Monk did. Elsewhere whapped cymbals and constant hi-hat shakes and pops buttressed the bass clarinetist’s harsh fortissimo growls, extended split tones and flutter tonguing.

Here as elsewhere, the pianist’s metronomic note clusters dissolved into concentrated slaps and cross-handed pumps. At the same time von Schlipplenbach often extended the melodies with novel techniques. These encompassed such tricks as: modified ragtime-styling, allowing Lytton to pop his snares and pumps his bass drum; arpeggio-laden spidery cadences that introduced ever-widening split tones quacks, and altissimo peeps from Mahall; and kinetic energy that made it sound as if he were replicating a piano roll. At points using knitting needles to provide a contrasting pattern or daintily rubbings his drum tops with his palms, Lytton’s most capricious percussion use came as the pianist segued into “Just a Gigolo”, which Monk also favored. Until Mahall completely obliterated the theme with chalumeau brays, the drummer used triangle pings and airborne ratcheting plus soft mallets on his floor tom to dislocate the time sense. Von Schlipplenbach’s abrupt introduction of a secondary, mid-tempo Monk line, directed the improvisation back to moderato as effectively as Mahall’s unexpected marshalling of a rolling blues line into the trio’s encore number lead to the reedist trading fours with the percussionist – and a satisfying conclusion to the evening.

Two times Four Musicians isn’t always Two Quartets

If only the first night’s sounds had been as dazzling as those on the other two. While improvised music thrives on spontaneity, neither ad-hoc quartet set at the Casa added up to more than the sum of its parts. Chances to contrast the styles of two sets of major innovators playing the same instrument – Dörner and Cappozzo plus Parker and Dudek – were available, although the same situation existed the second night with the entire GUO.

When it came to Parker/Dudek, what were most instructive were the strategies employed when the two saxophonists plus Dörner and trombonist Thewes weren’t involved in broken-octave harmonies. On their own, both saxophonists exhibited equal episodes of reed bites plus tongue slaps rather than melodiousness. On the other hand, the trombonist, with gnarly slurring and timbral spikiness, and the slide-trumpeter, with pointillist puffs and mangled note patterns, followed completely antithetical tactics.

During the other quartet set earlier in the evening, Cappozzo demonstrated his complete control of the horn, creating tongue stops and flat-line air with the same facility with which mellow slurs were isolated and produced from the side of his mouth. Bauer’s trombone work involved capillary quacks and disconnected mumbles forced through his bell, meeting Walsdorff’s split tones. Together the players provided irrefutable evidence of the brass background of all three horns. Sounding like a marching band gone berserk, this identity was confirmed while Lovens rhythmically slapped his unattached cymbals. When he wasn’t doing that, the percussionist countered the gurgles, brays, sputters and tongue flutters of the horns in varied fashion. Rarely keeping a constant beat, he instead divided his rhythms, devoting as much time to slapping his hi-hat with a drumstick or maneuvering a cloth and unattached cymbals on and off drum tops as he did pounding a backbeat.

While the sounds on this evening weren’t as spectacular as the ones heard on subsequent nights, that so many major European improvised stylists could be observed close-up made every one of these SPIP concerts essential listening. As the city’s other so-called Jazz festival increasingly anchors itself to programming irrelevant pop-styled music, SPIP becomes Montreal’s only essential summer festival for adventurous music.