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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Survival Unit III – Straylight (Live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen) (Astral Spirits, 2015) ****

By Martin Schray

There’s an odd story behind this review. I thought that it would be interesting to compare two recordings consisting of the same material since Straylight (the album reviewed yesterday) was recorded in September 2014 during a US tour in Champaign, Illinois and then released as a CD on Michael Zerang’s Pink Palace label, while this recording was recorded almost a year earlier, in December 2013, on a European tour. The Astral Spirits label, which specializes in cassettes, bought the material and Joe McPhee sent the same titles as on the Pink Palace release.

But it turned out that there was a mixup with the titles as the band was producing the CD at the same time that Nate Cross, the man behind Astral Spirits, was working on the tape. McPhee’s explanation? He said that it was like in the fog of war, signals got crossed. Furthermore, he explained that he was under pressure and therefore made the mistake. But he was also sure that the music would tell the story, making the whole project all the more a collector's item. Another way of putting it is "what’s in a name?"

So: the titles are the same, but the music isn't. Most obvious is the different instrumentation.  For the Copenhagen gig the band used percussion, cello, electronics and tenor, which were their usual instruments for European tours (McPhee sometimes also played the pocket trumpet). "Blood of a Poet (for Steve Dalachinsky)", the A-side of the tape, is an almost classic Survival Unit III piece, on which the band uses all the typical elements that make them such an outstanding formation: McPhee’s Ayleresque style, Lonberg-Holm’s extensive cello arcos, his brutal electronic attacks, Zerang’s elegant drive, the great timing of all the musicians (everybody exactly knows when to contribute), the marvelous solo parts etc.

"If Not Now ..." starts almost tenderly with a very long and intimate duo of tenor (McPhee includes some voicing as well) and cello before there’s a break at the five minute mark. It sounds as if the band was starting a new piece (maybe there were actually four pieces).  It’s almost a classic trio performance, at the beginning you can hardly tell Lonberg-Holm’s cello from a bass. It takes about five minutes before the band gains momentum again when McPhee throws in a blues melody heading towards New Orleans jazz, but Lonberg-Holm and Zerang resist the temptation to follow.

You can recognize cross-album similarities here and there however, especially in "When?", the last track, which also opens with a drum solo and in some respects its structure and atmosphere are similar to the Straylight version. McPhee plays tenor on both, which gives the music a feel of being gloomy yet beautiful. The focus is clearly on jazz, compared to new classical music on Starlight.

Although the production of this album seems a bit confusing, the music is unquestionably top-notch. And it might become an object of desire for collectors as well. If you want a physical copy you better be quick.

Straylight (Live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen) will be available as a download and a cassette/tape in a limited edition of 150 copies, and is released on 13 November.

You can buy it from