Sunday, January 26, 2014

Survival Unit III: Game Theory (Not Two, 2013) ****½

By Martin Schray

Reviewing this album gives me the chance to appreciate the work of three institutions without which free jazz would not be possible – local organizers who give the musicians the possibility to play, labels who publish their albums and the long time commitment of the musicians themselves.

I recently saw Survival Unit III, which is Joe McPhee on saxes and pocket trumpet, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics and Michael Zerang on drums in Weikersheim, a village in South Germany which is really out in the sticks. For more than 30 years Norbert Bach and Elsbeth Schmidt have been booking mainly punk rock and free jazz bands for their club called W71, their cultural engagement for this region cannot be appreciated highly enough.

NotTwo, the Polish label founded by Marek Winiarski in 1998, has been one of the most interesting labels in the last few years (as well as NoBusiness in Lithuania, Clean Feed in Portugal and Rune Grammofon in Norway, among others). Winiarski’s simply releases the stuff he likes and he clearly prefers live improvisations. In the last years he has produced outstanding CD boxes by Barry Guy New Orchestra (“Mad Dogs”) or DKV Trio (“Past Present”).  It is actually no surprise that they have now released a CD by Survival Unit III.

And of course this music is about the artists, especially about icons like 74-year-old Joe McPhee, who has been on the scene since 1967 and who has been responsible for seminal albums like “Nation Time”, “Black Magic Man”, “Topology” or “Survival Unit II: At WBAI’s Free Music Store” (just to name a few). In 2006 he has reanimated his Survival Unit and has released three albums with this group since then.

The beginning of their new album, “Ever Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head”, is very meditative, Lonberg-Holm and Zerang are very reluctant, they create an almost spiritual atmosphere which enables McPhee to bring in a melancholic blues improvisation before – almost without noticing - the piece escalates into classic free jazz. Exactly in the middle the track seems to stop, as if it was looking around for its possibilities. Introspections, McPhee’s only contribution on pocket trumpet, a harsh Brötzmann-like outburst and McPhee humming are the result.

Lately McPhee’s music has been less motivated by the political situation of African-Americans but more by the sonic exploration of his instruments (“Sonic Elements”) but on this album it seems that he wanted to comment on recent social upheavals again. “Love in the Time of AIDS” just asks what love is today opposed to sex, power and control. On the one hand it is an incredibly sad comment on a feeling that seems to vanish, the piece sounds like a requiem. However, it is also a great musical reminiscence to John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.

The final track, “A Song for Beggars”, is the most obvious political statement starting with the words “This song won’t feed the starving, nor will conferences on hunger with a fortune spent on talking. Nor will it house the homeless or quench the thirst of millions who will die from lack of water while the vampires drink their blood” – words clearly in the tradition of beat generation authors like Amiri Baraka (“Nation Time” was a tribute to him). It is a dark piece, full of frenzy, yet it is also elegant, beautifully swinging, enrooted in gospel and blues.

Another great album of a great artist.

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You can watch a full – and marvelous - gig of their latest tour here:

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