The Case of the Missing Pearl

Globe Unity Orchestra
FMP : 1976

Enrico Rava, Manfred Schoof, and Kenny Wheeler, trumpet; Gunter Christmann, Albert Mangelsdorff, and Paul Rutherford, trombone; Peter Brotzmann, Anthony Braxton, Gerd Dudek, Evan Parker, and Michel Pilz, reeds; Alexander von Schlippenbach, piano; Peter Kowald, bass, tuba; Buschi Niebergall, bass; Paul Lovens, percussion.

You want a band? Try craigslist. You want a spectacle? Dial up some Europeans. Back in 2006, when we presented a couple of smaller jewels from the Globe Unity Orchestra’s meisterwerk, we deliberately steered clear of the title track, thinking it too long, too massive, too sprawling, too…too.

But that was then. We’re not holding back now, and we hope you can come along for the (25 minute) ride; it’s worth it. Far from the unrelenting barrage the Globe Unity was capable of (dig the one-key piano), “Pearl” is often surprisingly delicate, squeezing out sparks from cells within the larger band. On a cursory listen it’s easy to hear this as a mere exemplar of discrete and knotty Euro jazz, but give it your full attention and the plot thickens.

From the start, the song generates an unusual dramatic tension. Each of the stark opening sections seems to be building toward something — a crescendo or maybe a rendezvous with the band — and we anticipate the twist lurking around the next note. The players menace and tease. This is the sort of soundtrack that could inspire its own noir novel, albeit one by Robbe-Grillet. But it would come complete with double-crosses, vanishing treasures, shamuses framed for murder, rollicking car chases, woozy femmes fatale, detonated buildings, and the patented Big Finish.

$ $ $

We planned this post while ignorant of the significant big band (or bigband) conversation going on around us. We came to it first via Ethan, who pointed us to Darcy’s originating document, which then drove us back to the primary source material, at Rifftides. The discussion has centered around the Basie/Jones/Brookmeyer axis, primarily; not our area at all. Braxton’s Creative Orchestra gets a nod or two, and Muhal Abrams is listed as one of the key charts for the syllabus. If any readers want to chime in further re: favorites at the out end of the big band spectrum, we’re all (big) ears.

Those in consumerist mode would do well to check the Atavistic Unheard Music offering 67/70. It’s a sweet eMusic deal, too, if you’re so inspired.

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10 Responses to The Case of the Missing Pearl

  1. I missed your post about them the first time through, so this bears saying for me: what a goddamn lineup. It’s the big band that plays during existential crises in heaven. Everyone all transparent and shaking uncontrollably.

    This… this thing you have posted here is an astounding perversion of space—the first few minutes are like isolating the echo of a bottle shattering against a brick wall and replaying it ad infinitum until each repetition takes different permutations in the mind, the rest of it like dark alleyways where the streets have gone feral and are turning on their footed oppressors.

    Sorry to get purple prose everywhere.

  2. Looking fwd to hearing this one. Thanks for posting. This is the big band conversation I’ve been looking for!

    I mentioned Globe Unity (’76 with the choir) on the Darcy blog so from there three picks…

    1) Jazz Composer’s Orchestra’s Communications (I think D:O posted something from this at one point), 2) Alan Silva & the Celestial Communication Orchestra’s 3 LP screaming document for BYG/Actuel, Seasons (Luna Surface, too, for that matter). And 3) what about Sun Ra? Especially since he really is in the Fletcher Henderson/Ellington/Basie lineage. I’ll pick Jazz in Silhouette.

  3. well interesting stuff here, no doubt. as for avant big bands — i gotta echo scott on the sun ra tip. he’s kind of the alpha and omega, yeah?

    some others —

    what about william parker’s little huey orchestra? they threw down some a-mazin albums and shows in the 90s. who was doing anything better?

    except maybe for butch morris. do his often brilliant large-scale conductions count as big bands? i vote yes.

    then there’s the mysterious case of henry threadgill’s society situation dance band. i saw them play in battery park and they were among the most alive and jumpin ensembles out there. but were they ever recorded? any boots?
    someone help a girl out here?

  4. HTSSDB:

    There’s a downloadable audio version of this concert out there somewhere, but I don’t have the link handy. I’ll try to remember to post it later.

  5. Favorites at the out big band end — a comment I just left at DJA’s blog (partly taking off from a previous comment about Westbrook and the Brotherhood):

    For Mike Westbrook, my favorite thing by him is The Cortege, mostly settings of poems of various sorts and attains some real moments of majesty, but it’s long out of print. Fans of Uri Caine’s Mahler work should also check out Westbrook-Rossini, which was reissued not so long ago on Hatology (though I think that may be a studio version, not the live version I’ve heard). Both of those feature singing by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton which might not be to all tastes. (The Rossini actually has less singing — The Cortege is almost all vocal.) For more straightforward big-bandy stuff I’ve like Metropolis, from the early 70s, which tends to have some out horn improvisation over pretty steady rockish beats. Avoid the Beatles album.

    The Brotherhood of Breath Bremen to Bridgewater album is one I like — the recording isn’t always the greatest and there are some unpolished moments, but again it gets some pretty ferocious grooves up with out solos on top of it. The band includes a lot of the South African expats who were in the UK at the time (Chris McGregor was the leader, Dudu Pukwana did a lot of soloing) as well as prominent British free players like Evan Parker and Marc Charig — Parker is not in his free improv bag here (not even as much as on Kenny Wheeler’s Song for Someone).

    John Surman/John Warren’s Tales from the Algonquin is a great one from ’69 or so, mostly featuring the same kind of British players who would show up on Wheeler records of the day.

    [Here was a comment about Gardens of Harlem, which you guys know already.]

    Satoko Fujii has a lot of big band records besides the one Ben mentioned. The only one I’ve heard is Jo which has a pretty wide stylistic mix — there’s a Balkan-sounding piece, a few fairly far out pieces, and one particular absolutely amazing track (track 3, Okesa-Yansado) which is like nothing I’ve heard in jazz; it’s like jazz Scelsi or Xenakis. It starts with a huge sound, like you’re on a mountaintop, and just builds with a pounding drum beat and a cavernous baritone solo. The record’s worth it for just that track. You can hear an excerpt on its Amazon page.

    William Parker’s The Mayor of Punkville is another out record with a lot of NYC people, with a lot of the pieces are built on straightforward riffs, which sometimes build for a long time (there are two tracks that are about half an hour each). It’s more like the Brotherhood of Breath album than any of the ones I’ve mentioned so far. My favorite track on this is the last one, an elegy for Lester Bowie, which starts with a trumpet playing a very simple melody and turns into a collective improvisation where you can still hear that melody through. [You're definitely right on that, cherise.]

    Neal, thanks for the video and I would loooove that link.

  6. I wrote this piece about large out ensembles for Perfect Sound Forever back in 2003. These records all hold up pretty damn well.

  7. Thanks to everyone for the comments, links, memory jogs, suggestions, and articles on the avant big band front. Terrific stuff.

    Here’s one more also overlooked — Cecil Taylor’s various big bands, which have delivered some of his most Ellingtonian music and some of the best big band action I’ve witnessed live.

  8. See, that’s funny; I know I’m probably in the minority on this one, but Cecil’s large ensemble stuff (for purposes of this post, let’s specify anything larger than the 1976 Unit with Jimmy Lyons, Raphe Malik, Ramsey Ameen, Sirone and Ronald Shannon Jackson) has always left me cold. That show he did at the Knitting Factory a few years back with musicians all over the stage and in the first few rows of what should normally have been audience-space didn’t work for me at all.

  9. George Russell, duh.

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