By Philip Coombs
When I first discovered avant-garde and free jazz, I was, like many of us I'm sure, fixated on the albums and artists that made us feel alive and helped us believe that anything was possible in music. A major turning point for me was the Globe Unity Orchestra, and more specifically, the 'Hamburg '74' recording. It was one of the first jazz records that I fully understood on my terms. The sheer chaos of that album made me swell up with emotion, still does actually. When the choir started, it puts me over the edge. There were no longer any rules, I could do whatever I wanted with my music and it could never be wrong.
Then this recording of the Insub Meta Orchestra fell into my lap and I was instantly hit with all of these old emotions once again. Here are 40 musicians playing instruments as traditional as guitars, saxophones, and trumpets while incorporating instruments of a non-traditional slant such as a tennis racquet, functioning generator, and mouth!
With five tracks conducted by one of five different members of the orchestra and one free piece to end the 'Archive #1' album I became very aware how the concept of insubordination becomes such an intricate part of both the group's and label's philosophy.
Track one, Punkte und Flachen, sets the tone and mood for the rest of the album. Minimalist they are. The best way I could think of to describe this first minute or so of this track is this. It is the sound of 40 instruments not being played. Picture an orchestra pit full of instruments but no musicians present. All you get is the sound of wood, brass, metal and electricity. Then over the course of the track, a spattering of percussion, single notes, and an occasional tone are played with incredible self control. Conceptually, it is very exciting, but in practice it only lasts as long as you are willing to let it.
The first five tracks follow in the same vein. With subsequent listens however, I stopped playing the recognition game of, Was that a typewriter? or When will I hear the banjo? and listened to the entire sonic picture. With this new listening attitude I got to hear more of the instruments and not just listen for them. They have an individuality of their own, an ebb and flow, all building their own structures on the gaps left behind by the others.
Track six, "Set Sail", finally, is the only track without a conductor. It is intimate yet extremely distant at the same time. You have to strain your ear to hear a trumpet or electric guitar but at the same time, pristinely hear breathing. Sometimes it feels like a single microphone was placed on the ceiling of a church for this recording, sometimes on someone's lip. It follows the same restraint as the previous five tracks and each of the instruments get to play if sometimes only for a single note.
'Archive # 1' isn't 'Hamburg '74', and nor should it be, but it does pose similar questions. Do we need a massive orchestra pushing what is safe and normal? Yes! Should it be insubordinate? Absolutely!!!!
Can be purchased and downloaded from the label.
A sample of the IMO live.