Alexander von Schlippenbach Globe Unity Orchestra

Globe Unity (50 Years)
(Intakt)

Can you pay tribute to a 50-year-old innovation and still be innovative? That’s the question hanging over this anniversary performance by German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and his free-jazz big band, the Globe Unity Orchestra. When he debuted the project in 1966, its sheer size—13 players in all—made even Ornette Coleman’s infamous double quartet sound structured by comparison.

Where the 1966 performance crackled with a youthful sense of discovery, the pleasures in hearing the orchestra work in 2016 lie mostly in picking out moments of individual virtuosity. And the Jazzfest Berlin audience saved its most rapturous applause for a rare moment of lone instrumentation, Evan Parker’s screeching saxophone, which flashes like a fish leaping out of whitewater, then plunges back into chaos.

At times, when a quorum of players are testing their lung capacity to its fullest, Globe Unity (50 Years) feels like that moment when you lose your balance leaning back in a chair, then catch yourself. But many of the performance’s most interesting moments happen in subtler ways: when the brass players use their valves to create textural elements, wheezing and sighing over von Schlippenbach’s blocky, atonal chords. Maybe free-jazz feels less revolutionary in 2018 than it did in 1966, but there still are sonic possibilities in jazz’s traditional instruments yet to be fully explored.