Live at Glenn Miller Café
Ayler Records

psi By Ken Waxman
May 2, 2005

Swedish guitarist David Stackenäs has been someone to watch every since he released his remarkable solo session, The Guitar, on Häpna five years ago. Since that time he’s extended his early promise, playing with a variety of improvisers ranging from Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson to American multi-reedist Ken Vandermark.

Recorded one month apart last summer in Stockholm and London, the most recent CDs on which he’s featured, suggest that he may be at a crossroads. Live at Glenn Miller Café, featuring local band Surd – Fredrik Nordström on alto and tenor saxophones, bassist Filip Augustsonon and drummer Thomas Strønen as well as the guitarist – in a speedy freebop romp that at points veers awfully close to fusion-like excess. Far superior is the more than 71½-minute Gubbröra, which matches Stackenäs with four veteran improvisers. Duos with fellow Swede Sten Sandell on piano, voice and electronics, make up the first two tracks; the third adds Sandell and Stackenäs to the transcendent British trio of Evan Parker on soprano and tenor saxophones, Barry Guy on bass and Paul Lytton on drums.

High energy, Surd establishes its parameters with the first tune, a speedy punk-rock version of Steve Lacy’s “38”. It encompasses Nordström’s screeching reed bites, complicated-parade ground drum rolls from Strønen, plus rapid note clusters and bell-like reverb from the guitarist.

The oddity about it and the subsequent tracks is the curiously pugnacious soloing of Nordström. Usually an inside-outside player, who has recorded excellent CDs under his own name – featuring bassist Augustson – and with Italian reedist Alberto Pinton, he seems to have put aside his finesse for pure raunch here, Could it be in response to the club crowd?

Most disappointing is “Head P”, which he wrote in honor of the rock band Portishead. More than six minutes of grungy nonchalance, the ballad includes snatches of what could be some of the rock band’s original tunes, but mostly showcases freak notes and false registers from the saxman and tick-tock ringing guitar plucks from Stackenäs.

Other pieces are better, at points giving the guitarist space in which to explore skewed blues vamps and country and western licks as well as moderato picks and plucks. What’s more, Nordström often double and triple tongues after split second forays into higher, buzzier registers. Elsewhere, guitar techniques of the moment include distorted timbres that compress into a steady drone, lots of ringing filigree in double counterpoint to the sax line, and power chording. The reedist also tries out glottal punctuation of single, emphasized notes, plus growls and phrases that seem unattached to anything else. Strønen gets involved as well, ending up smashing every resonating part of his kit on “Bye. Bye Teddy”, which begins with his low-key exploration of struck rims, plus abstracted triangle, bell and cymbal manipulation.

Combing the best and the worst of the situation, the bassist’s “Magnum Bonum” is the track that features steady bass work as well as concussion and friction from the drum kit, giving the front line room to blow. Stackenäs’ slurred fingering broadens to such an extent that it almost sounds as if he’s producing organ chords. This process later gives way to whimpering folksy lines and distorted reverb of flanged excess. Additionally, Nordström seesaws from powerful straightahead blowing to a sort of psychedelic freebop that ends with him squeaking and honking in primitive frenzy, as Strønen attacks the drums as if he was Keith Moon in the days of “My Generation”. Still, this overindulgence seems to excite the Swedish audience.

One month earlier at London’s Freedom of the City festival Stackenäs’ inner Jeff Beck was nowhere in evidence. Instead his cerebral string musings could be related to any one of many low-key BritImprov guitarists. Moreover, the electronics heard on the fist two pieces comes not from amp distortion, but Sandell’s shadowy, arrhythmic manipulations.

“Jansson’s Temptation (part 1)”, for instance, often shifts tonal centres, with the ghostly line of oscillating electronics converging with sideband shakes. Then there’s the pianist’s off-key counter tenor vocalizing that accompany lone key plunks. Pawing single notes, Sandell manipulates fluttering tone hisses at the same instant, with Stackenäs advancing single strums or concussive runs alongside the keys’ trebly plinks.

Using broken octaves, the blunt qualities of both piano and guitar are brought to the forefront midway through, as the pianist’s contrasting dynamics move from low frequency to high frequency and broken chords are massaged into harmonic statements. Keeping very much in the background with chromatic plucks, Stackenäs soon yields to Sandell. From then on the piano man settles himself for as time in the lowest quadrant of the soundboard, unleashing a full open chordal attack of passing chords and pressured pedal sustain so that he seem to be flying across the clavier. With fluttering electronic hisses underscoring his actions, vibrations and overtones race in tandem from left and right hands coalesces into vibrating melodies that are given additional resonance and color, eventually blanching back to single rapped keys.

“Jansson’s Temptation (part 2)” is more of the same, although here among the pulsating slidewhistle tones from electronics, and the abstracted collected chords that define Sandell’s near non-Westernized rubato patterns, the guitarist gets in a few more licks. Flat-picking, he manages to parlay ringing chords and sustained vibrato-like echoes to suggest both the melodic and rhythmic shape of the piece, only gradually succumbing to pick guard and wood slaps that meet piano wood raps and unvarying keyboard patterns.

Upping the ante, the title track welcomes the members of the self-contained British trio, who have been playing together in different combinations for decades. Beginning with a slurred swoop from Parker’s sax and carefully positioned cymbal whap and bell resonation from Lytton, the hosts announce their presence. Soon, with Sandell’s piano patterning, Stackenäs’ plucks and arco actions from Guy, the five are operating in quintuple counterpoint.

Reductionist, the smacks, rattles, shuffles and picks are such that individual identification is masked. Low-level ring modulator loops, buzzes and reverberations amplifying Guy’s ponticello sweeps add to this.

When Parker switches to soprano, teasing out legato swirls that reconstitute themselves into lighter toned actions, the piece opens up still further. Lytton’s guillotine- sharp cymbal slap cut off the reedist’s attempt at circular breathing, as the fretman introduces banjo-like chromatic picking and Sandell key plucks and unleashes low-level electronics.

Two-thirds of the way through, Stackenäs’ strums a series of single notes as the saxophonist circles and powers different distinctive phrases, Guy bows stentoriously and, after scene setting with hollow resonation from a wood block, Lytton scrapes unattached wood and vibrates his cymbals. A brief reconstruction as a piano-bass-drum rhythm section behind judicious finger plucks from the guitarist melts into distracted chording from the piano, off-to-the-side tongue slaps from the reedist, intermittent picking from the guitarist and plucking from the bassist plus rambling drum stomps. In contrast to Surd’s aural flag waving climax, the music of these five logically and delightfully vanishes into thin air.

Stackenäs’ skill making an impression in this exalted company speaks to his development as does his actions trying out new riffs with Surd. Nonetheless, how soon the definitive David Stackenäs guitar statement will emerge is still an open question.