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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Survival Unit III - Straylight (Pink Palace, 2015)

Survival Unit III - Straylight (Pink Palace, 2015) ****½

Straylight from Survival Unit III - the trio of legendary trumpeter-saxophonist Joe McPhee, cellist-guitarist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Michael Zernag - celebrates ten years of working together. The trio was initiated by McPhee in 2004, as his third Survival Unit group, when all three played in Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. This trio has toured extensively on both sides of the Atlantic and recorded this album, its fourth, in the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, IL, on September 2014.

These three resourceful and highly creative improvisers embody in their respective playing the true essence of freedom, whether we would title it 'free jazz' or 'free improvisation.' Their rich, individual languages, colorful imagination, great intuition and wise, dynamic interplay and lively sense of total freedom turn this live recording into a real gem. Already on the first extended piece “Blood of a Poet”, dedicated to New York-based poet Steve Dalachinsky, the trio follows its immediate instincts, adopting, developing and reconstructing brief ideas. This fast flow of ideas turns to be a loose, poetic narrative that stresses the strong, individual voices and at the same time the trio almost telepathic interplay. There is enough room for an intense, searching-scorching solo of Lonberg-Holm who adds electronics to his sonic palette, contrasted by a lyrical sax solo of McPhee and later by a fractured drumming of Zerang.

McPhee begins the second extended piece “If Not now…” with a commanding solo made of circular breathing on the pocket trumpet, filling the space with strange, agonizing voices. Zerang ornaments this intense, stream of breaths and shouts with light, percussive touches that become faster and more dense as the piece develops. Then Lonberg-Holm joins with his screaming, tenor guitar and ups the temperature into a fiery, wild one. This tight interplay disintegrates later on into spare breaths of McPhee,  experiments of Lonberg-Holm with electric guitar and electronics sounds and Zerang explorations of the skins and cymbals of his drum set. Eventually McPhee takes the lead with a moving sax solo that pierces Lonberg-Holm electric storm and Zerang ceremonial, Middle-Eastern-tinged percussion.  

The short answer to this piece, “When?”, is an energetic free-jazz piece, fueled by Zernag massive drumming, manic bowing of Lonberg-Holm and a gentle, compassionate playing of McPhee.


Survival Unit III – Straylight (Pink Palace, 2015) ****        

By Martin Schray

Survival Unit is a project by Joe McPhee and this is his third version of that group. The first version (unfortunately not documented) started in the late 1960s and early 1970s with McPhee on his own (on saxophone and on pre-recorded material) before there was a second version with Mike Kull (p), Byron Morris (sax) and Harold E. Smith (dr) (HatHut released a 1971 performance in 1996 on which the band was augmented by Clifford Thornton). In the early 2000s McPhee revived the band with new members (Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang). Straylight is the fourth release by this trio and celebrates the band’s ten years anniversary.

On their first three albums you could find McPhee on pocket trumpet, alto and tenor and Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics, on this one McPhee uses the soprano (and the pocket trumpet) and Lonberg-Holm is on tenor guitar for the first time which changes the band’s  approach to sound completely.

The album starts with “Blood of a Poet“ (for Steve Dalachinsky), a piece dedicated to the New York poet and friend of McPhee’s (he said that he attended almost all of his concerts in NYC). Dalachinsky performs regularly with free-jazz musicians, e.g. at the Visions Festival. His work is inspired by the beat poets, he likes to break rule of the language to create his own - which is the connection to Survival Unit III. The first part of the track is marked by heavy blues beat interruptions, Zerang almost plays time to McPhee’s wide trumpet bows and short soprano trills which Lonberg-Holm counters with wide and spacious notes. The second part features hectic bustle between the three instruments and sudden breaks: first McPhee is left alone and then Lonberg-Holm, who rubs and scratches the strings of the cello in front of electronic debris. McPhee tries to relieve the tension with a tender soprano melody but Lonberg-Holm and Zerang are not easily defeated, they bring in a blues riff which is put through the meat grinder. The end of the track is a violent mess which is stopped abruptly, as if someone had pulled the plug.

One of the band’s qualities is their great variety of styles - from call-and-response schemes to new classical music to rock-related material - as well as different atmospheres, something that is audible on this album as well, for example on the second and third track, "If Not Now …" and "When?" (obviously an allusion to Primo Levi’s novel about a band of Jewish partisans behind enemy lines in Russia and Poland – the partisans obviously being another survival unit). "If Not Now …" presents Lonberg-Holm on guitar and McPhee on trumpet, the latter also opens the piece. The band creates a very sombre and gloomy atmosphere first, Lonberg-Holm’s guitar style is very harsh and full of dissonant splinters, it sounds as if it was reigning glass. Zerang relentlessly pushes his fellow musicians with a dark drive on the toms in the first part, which underlines the brutality of the music.

If "If Not Now ..." represents the dark and violent passages of Levi’s novel, the last track points in a completely different direction - hope. "When?" shows the band’s interest in new baroque music, especially audible in Lonberg-Holm’s cello contribution.

Although they have been playing together for some time now, Survival Unit III is one of the most interesting projects on the scene. Hopefully, they will be together for ten more years.

The album was recorded live during a USA tour at the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign/Illinois on September18, 2014.

You can buy it from and or directly from the label on bandcamp.


Anonymous said...

Very nice review of a great recording. Hope there will be more reviews of McPhee stuff soon.

Peter Gough said...

Just ordered this from Michael Zerang. Fire music!