40th Anniversary Concert of the Globe Unity Orchestra

Editor’s Note: The following essays from 2011 string together the complete review of the Globe Unity Orchestra’s 40th Anniversary Concert at the Berlin Jazz Festival. The first essay was jointly published with Signal to Noise magazine. The second essay provides a brief hisotry  of the Globe Unity Orchestra. The third traces the hisotry of the Berlin Jazz Festival related to the Globe Unity Orchestra’s appearances, and the fourth gives the perspectives of Evan Parker and George E. Lewis on the significance of the Globe Unity Orchestra. Finally, the personnel on Globe Unity 1966 are listed

© Laurence Svirchev

“Oh! those spiders are hip

a real strange invention

of  Mother Nature’s


-Wulf Teichmann

Four decades ago a band hit the stage of the Berlin Jazz Festival and caused a sensation. Alexander von Schlippenbach’s composition, Globe Unity, was the first time the precepts of free jazz had been applied in an orchestral setting. The name of the composition became the name of an orchestra, and in Novermber 2006, the Berlin Jazz Festival presented the 40th anniversary concert of the Globe Unity Orchestra to a sold-out house.

Globe Unity’s concerts, typically seventy-five minute non-stop continua of high-intensity musics, invariably leave no room for neutral reactions. Their Berlin 1966 and Chicago 1987 concerts left press opinion divided into either love or perplexity tempered with active dislike. During the two concerts this commentator has heard (Lisbon 2005 and Berlin 2006), the initial audience reserve was rendered into palpably engaged enthusiasm as the music evolved. It seems to take a while for an audience to get into the variegated swing of things but the Globe Unity Orchestra possesses a transcendent stage personality that draws listeners into the musical experience.

These years Globe Unity’s concerts are typically one long improvisation. The music goes where it wills and individuals are free to step forward and solo at any time. That could mean one individual is joined by another and then another until there is a group improvisation, contiguous with, but independent of, the rest of the orchestra which is still playing, or has collectively chosen silence. The nonchalance with which this occurs demonstrates a kind an of democratic and understated showmanship that seems to weave entrancement through an audience.

In contrast to a completely improvised set, documented on the Globe Unity 2002 recording (Intakt), the 40th anniversary concert stage had written material. What links these two seemingly different scenarios is that the written material came from Globe Unity’s recorded history, and the composed sections were designed as stepping stones to individual and group improvisations. The five sparsely-stated compositions adjudicated at roughly equal intervals were a kind of reprise on the history of the band and its musicians. Sequentially, they were “Globe Unity” (Schlippenbach), “Out of Burtons Song Book” (Willem Breuker), “Bavarian Calypso” (Schlippenbach), “Nodagoo (Kenny Wheeler), “The Dumps” (Steve Lacy), and “The Forge” (Schlippenbach).

Explaining the flow of the music, drummer Paul Lovens said, “We call it a timetable. We had written material to be played and then solo sections given to a certain player who would be accompanied by the band or and one or two of the drummers. This was only to tell who to play with whom and in what order. There is a concentration which is demanded for the written parts and there is also a concentration you bring yourself in the improvisational part. There was no laying back, you go!”

Here’s how a slice of the concert flowed. About two-thirds of the way through, the band was slowing down from an intense group improvisation on Bavarian Calypso.  Kenny Wheeler, flugelhorn in hand, walked to the solo mike. As a final decrescendo bass note from a trombone faded and with Schlippenbach accompanying him, Wheeler began his solo on Nodagoo. Wheeler’s sound was painfully beautiful, filled with an emotional melancholy, and logarithmically enhanced when the piano-less and drummer-less orchestra began on cue to play adagio, sustained low-pitched chords, drones built progressively upon drones from the different sections, rhythmed by a pulse from the bass clarinet. Nodagoo had duende, a misterioso lament filled with Spanish and Arabian airs.

With the applause over, Paul Rutherford, in stark contrast to the previous composition, played a free-form solo accompanied only by occasional chime and cymbal strikes from Lovens. There was absolute silence from the thousand habitants of the concert hall, and sustained then applause when Rutherford stepped back into the trombone section.

After the pure abstraction of Rutherford’s adventure came The Dumps. The melody was played with Lacy-esque precision and exactitude. The Dumps was possessed with that ineffable jazz quality called swing, the Basieite-Ellingtonian-Hendersonian roar of the great orchestras of long-gone decades. Evan Parker and Rudi Mahall played elegantly-swapped counterpoints laced with the melody. Mahall also soloed in conjunction with Schlippenbach, demonstrating a rare fluidity on the bass clarinet, the sound ranging from the bottom end into the alto register.  The tutti orchestral improvisation that followed was timeless, a simultaneous soloing of fifteen musicians, occasional clips of the melody sounding through the dense layers. Lacy, who had dedicated The Dumps to Jelly Roll Morton, would have been smiling.

Which brings us back to the spiders in the Teichmann poem that Schlippenbach had recited during his concert introduction. Teichmann was a special friend of the band and had died a few months previously. Schlippenbach dedicated the concert to the spiders who had come out of the white walls of a studio he had worked in many years previously.

The poem just might have stood for more than a fond remembrance. Spiders don’t hang their webs in just any old place. They are architects, and they choose with great care the anchor points from which they hang their structures. Good anchor points are found in nature at unequal distances from each other and with an orderly randomness. The outer limits of a spiderly network may initially appear asymmetrical, but when the form-work is finished and one can appreciate the whole, the appearance is symmetrical. The fundamental building material is organic silk, a material with great resilience, a substance which acts like an antenna and transmits fundamental vibrations. Gravity, wind, moisture, sunlight, and even the invited audience determine how the web’s shape expands and contracts. The structure has great resiliency and accomplishes spider-business well. The symmetrical asymmetry of a spider’s web is beautiful, even as its intensity induces awe.

A little like the Globe Unity Orchestra, a band possessed of silk strands of a high tensile-strength collective musicianship. Globe Unity has had its share of permanent goodbyes, but it has also welcomed new members like Jeb Bishop and Rudi Mahall. It would seem there are no musical impeding its progress into a fifth decade.

The History

In 1966 the times were still a’ changin’. The Cultural Revolution had started in China and its strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was ending. Huge demonstrations around the world protesting the war against Vietnam had begun, including twenty thousand Buddhists in Saigon. A B-52 bomber accidentally released four 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs off the coast of Spain. They didn’t explode, but Martin Luther King was hit by a rock thrown by racists during a civil rights demonstration in Chicago. The Common Market was a long way from fruition, and in Germany, it would take 23 years before the Wall lost its structural stability.

But other walls were already being knocked down. Certain musicians were way ahead of their times and they were promulgating the future through their music. Duke Ellington published The Far East Suite, Cecil Taylor published Conquistador, and John Coltrane was received as a hero in Japan and recorded Peace on Earth in concert.

There were many more musicians searching for freedom and one of them was a 28 year-old musical visionary, Alexander von Schlippenbach. He had studied composition with Bernd Alois Zimmerman and was interested in the Second Viennese School, particularly Schoenberg and Webern. He had received a commission from Berlin Jazz Festival director Joachim Berendt to write a composition for a string quartet. “Alex decided not to do it,” said trumpeter Manfred Schoof, a friend and collaborator. “Instead he decided to write a composition for a jazz orchestra. He called it Globe Unity and that was the start of the Globe Unity Orchestra.”

Globe Unity’s first performance was on November 3, 1966 at the Berlin Jazz Festival. The twelve-member group that played it was a synthesis of the Peter Brötzmann Trio and the Manfred Schoof Quintet, enhanced with reed players like Willem Breuker and Gunter Hampel. Berendt, a music authority, declared that Globe Unity was the first orchestral performance of free jazz.

In an interview after a 2005 Globe Unity concert in Lisbon, Schlippenbach told me, “There were very strong reactions from this performance. Many music critics were strongly against it. The good critics were speaking about the combination of jazz and European classical music. But actually it wasn’t that at all. It was improvised music. The sound was of course new. We did not use conventional tunes and conventional arrangements. I tried to work out something on a twelve-tone scale and use this in different contexts. But this was used only to give an impulse and a start to improvise for improvising musicians.”

In the beginning of Globe Unity, the band was composed of German and Dutch players but within a year Sven-Åke Johansson from Sweden recorded with the band and by 1970, the band had Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Kenny Wheeler (a Canadian by birth), and Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford and Derek Bailey from England (Globe Unity ‘67 & ’70, Atavistic). For its 20th Anniversary concert in 1986 (on FMP), Toshinori Kondo of Japan, George Lewis from the US, and perhaps most significantly, Ernst Ludwig Petrowsky of East Germany were in the band.

There was no such thing as a cold or any other kind of war on Globe Unity’s bandstand. Schlippenbach has stated “When Globe Unity was founded in 1966, it was just about musical reasons and definitely without any political intentions” (interview by Bill Shoemaker in www.pointofdeparture.org). Nevertheless, Globe Unity did exist in a political world, for after the Berlin Wall came down 1989, funding from cultural authorities was no longer what it had been.

The 1986 Globe Unity Orchestra was the last edition until it came back with a lion’s roar on Globe Unity 2002 (Intakt), a pure improvisation recorded in concert. The music thundered with coherency and passion. It was played as if they had been an intimate touring band, no one could never have guessed based on the listening evidence that 15 years had passed since the previous recording. Then came their 40th Anniversary recording session at Baden-Baden and the concert version at the Berlin Jazz Festival.

Slices of Time: The Berlin Jazz Festival

The concert line-ups of every edition of the Berlin Jazz Festival can be found at www.berlinerfestspiele.de/en/aktuell/festivals/07_jazzfest/jazz_start.php. Check who played in the sixth year of each decade on the same program as the Globe Unity Orchestra and a pattern of jazz history, past, present, and future, unfolds.

Martin Luther King addressed the opening of the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964.

When Globe Unity played its first concert in 1966, the festival line-up included Willie “The Lion”  Smith, the Albert Ayler Quintet, and the Max Roach Quintet with Sonny Rollins.

In 1976 Globe Unity appeared along The Gil Evans Orchestra, the Anthony Braxton Quartet with George Lewis, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Charles Mingus Group were also on the roster.

In 1986 when Globe Unity made their third appearance, the festival line-up included the Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy and the Steve Lacy Sextet.

Globe Unity didn’t make the 1996 Festival, but the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio (with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens) did play, along with the Gerry Hemingway Quintet, the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, and the Willem Breuker Kollektief.

The 2006 edition hosted a Dave Douglas Quintet and eloquently placed an accent on the music of New Orleans as well as jazz film.

Significance of the Globe Unity Orchestra

Laurence Svirchev: What is your appreciation of Globe Unity’s significance in the context of creative music from 1966 to the present?

Evan Parker: It has been a forward looking, somewhat Utopian project in which Alex’s vision of the “Great Yes!” referred to in the notes for the first record and taken from the writings of Paul Klee has always been the guiding principle.  Obviously in historic terms it is the first large ensemble in Europe to come out of the free jazz scene.  In fact we were functioning as integrated Europeans before the European Community existed and now we continue to lead the way in a relaxed internationalism that continues to make the politicians’ efforts look clumsy.

George Lewis: “You can’t underestimate the importance of the name itself. In tandem with the practice of improvisation, the name expresses a transcendental set of aspirations. One of these, I’m sure, has to do with border-crossing–certainly a big factor in Cold War Europe. A politics of decentralized, large-ensemble collectivity, which Globe Unity has been exploring for many years with great success, has implications for larger social formations.   In that regard, I imagine that improvisation became model, tool and staging ground, all at once, for ways of confronting and possibly short-circuiting barriers of language, culture, race, and other factors.”

Globe Unity 1966

Reeds: Willem Breuker, Peter Brötzmann, Gerd Dudek, Gunter Hampel; Trumpets: Manfred Schoof, Claude Beron; Tuba: Willi Litzmann;Trombone: Horst Gmeinwieser; Bass: Peter Kowald; Drums: Jacky Liebezeit, Mani Neumeier; Piano: Alexander von Schlippenbach

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