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Joe McPhee Survival Unit III

Joe McPhee Survival Unit III, The Vortex, London, 21/10/2010

by Tim Owen

October 28, 2010


Their playing is an update and a progression of the tradition, and a seriously powerful and affecting one at that.

Joe McPhee Survival Unit III

The Vortex, London,21/10/10

Joe McPhee - Alto saxophone, pocket trumpet
Fred Lonberg-Holm - Cello, electronics
Michael Zerang - Drums

Joe McPhee’s original ?Survival Unit’ was apparently a pre-recorded tape, held in reserve should other musicians fail to turn up for a gig; with no-one anyone else to play against, McPhee would play against the tape. The name was subsequently iterated for Survival Unit II, the quintet, featuring baritone saxophonist Clifford Thornton, which recorded the 1971 live album At WBAI’s Free Music Store (reissued by HatART in 1996 as N.Y.N.Y.1971). McPhee’s regular trio for the past fifteen years or so has been Trio X (with Dominic Duval on bass and Jay Rosen, drums), but this trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Michael Zerang also has a few years behind it now. They work together both as SU III and as a subset of Peter Br?tzmann’s Chicago Tentet (all being natives of Chicago). SU III has an identity quite distinct to that of Brotzmann’s outfit.

McPhee is seldom loquacious. He tends to extrapolate from terse beginnings, developing fluent extemporisations with bullshit-free authority; there’s no flash or flab in his tone. At this Vortex show, the second of a two night residency, during one remarkable, extended passage of circular breathing, McPhee ?sang’ into his horn without interrupting the flow. But he’s no showman, being often content to take a step backwards in deference to his companions. Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang have developed a deceptively easy familiarity over years playing together in other contexts besides this, including trios with musicians as diverse as sound poet Jaap Blonk, saxophonist John Butcher, and bassist Kent Kessler, another Chicago Tentet alumnus.

While McPhee is nominally the leader of the trio it’s Lonberg-Holm’s cello that mostly sets the musical tone. Lonberg-Holm last appeared at the Vortex just a few weeks earlier with the Vandermark 5. Then he was confined to the side of a crowded stage. Tonight he has more space, and he sits with an array of effects boxes laid out in a semi-circle before him on the floor. The postures he must adopt to trigger these effects would make any chiropractor wince. Not for him the soaring, lyric lines of fellow cellist Hank Roberts; Lonberg-Holm’s tone, excepting the most fleeting echo of folk melody, is astringent and even somewhat anguished, and the application of effects adds an extra abrasive bite. While McPhee solos more or less lyrically (like Ayler, someone says, sans religion) Lonberg-Holm whips up a nested skein of writhing scrape and burred shimmer. It falls to Michael Zerang to lighten the mood. Zerang is a versatile drummer, who modulates from textural playing to the purely rhythmic with ease, but there’s buoyancy to his performance throughout, particularly when soloing sticks-on-skins he gives the set some bounce. At other times he selects from a range of sticks to vary his attack, at one point applying sticks with curved, flattened heads (I think these were originally intended for use with a talking drum) to scrape and smear textures in counterpoint to Lonberg-Holm’s electrically enhanced bowing.

The rigour and subtly-leavened gravity of the Survival Units’ music might be off-putting for more-or-less casual listeners. They are firmly of the American post-Impulse! free jazz continuum, and they make no concession to anything much outside it, except of course that the tradition has often incorporated sympathetic innovations from the broader culture, and the same holds true for Survival Unit. The titles of two compositions on their recent “Synchronicity” CD, for instance, make reference to Jimi Hendrix and sound artist Maryanne Amacher, and that gives us pretty accurate co-ordinates for the Survival Units’ musical range and stance. So their playing is an update and a progression of the tradition, and a seriously powerful and affecting one at that.

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