The Thing

May 22, 2016


The March
Konvoj Records Kor 005

More than a quarter century after he almost literally blew into public consciousness as a Swedish augmentation of the corybantic Peter Brötzmann-Albert Ayler saxophone tradition, multi-reedman Mats Gustafsson has continued to develop manifold playing styles. Like the comic actor who scores in dramatic parts while retaining a commitment to comedy, Gustafsson bounces from intense, atonal improvisations to other settings where burly rhythm is as much a construct as atonal scrutiny.

Recorded in Malmö in 2013, The March is a three-track celebration of the Gush trio’s silver anniversary. An on-again, off-again affiliation like the similarly constituted Schlippenbach trio, Gush features Gustafsson on soprano and tenor saxophone plus two slightly older Swedish improvisers: pianist Sten Sandell and drummer Raymond Strid. If in retrospect Gush tiptoes around free music than The Thing, which consists of Gustafsson, playing alto, tenor, baritone and slide saxophones plus live electronics, and two Norwegians closer to his age: drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten playing double bass and bass guitar plunges feet first – with all limbs pumping – into an advanced Rock-provoked sounds. Although the band covers some Metal hits, the rawness implicit in the 11 performances here keeps the disc a far distance from Jazz-Rock Fusion.

Probably the most noticeable feature that separates Gush from The Thing is its sense of pacing. Intelligent pauses are integrated into the development of Gush’s three themes, with bombast kept to a minimum. That said, shortly after the main theme of the mammoth – 30 minutes plus – of “Barely an Instant Before the March” has been establish via piano key snaps and cascades as well as drum clasps and resonations, than Gustafsson begins spraying and smearing reed vibration on top of the narrative. These and his subsequent intermezzos of whiny reed exposition appear to challenge the others as if they’re bulls and he’s waving the proverbial red flag. Strid’s withdrawal strategy involves intermittent clanks, which appear to mock and provoke in turn. Upping the excitement with key-slapping speed and pedal power, in contrast, Sandel comments on Gustafsson’s crying split tones with measured inner piano-string plucks and snaps that resonate from the instrument’s wood. By the conclusion, Sandel’s throbbing glissandi take on the aggressor role, so that the saxophonist’s split tones cry as much as they slice; eventually combining with the others’ timbres for a moderated conclusion. The subsequent shorter tunes work variations on this strategy, with the pianist and drummer each getting space for solo fireworks. Like traditional magicians though they perform their feats with minimal fanfare. Gustafsson may blow hard, but he isn’t a blow hard. The members of Gush have weathered 25 years together because each provides what the other members need to appropriately modify agreed upon musical actions.

The Thing members have evolved a comparable partnership. While the three players who make up Gush cannily intersect individual skills with the cold bloodedness of chess masters, the other trio’s idea of sensory reception is to invest each and every piece with unquenchable blowtorch-like flames. On the surface – and live – the results are vastly more gripping than Gush. And here, only by the final “Fra jord er du kommet” do the three moderate their sometimes overwrought performance. Like existing on a constant diet of bar-b-q pork and waffle fries, there’s plenty of protein around during Shake’s seven-track menu. But some more austere fare like that on Gush’s plate would have provided a more balanced diet. That’s why the Håker Flaten-composed final piece is notable. Foggy and vaporous, while those tunes that precede it reflect the glare of noon on the desert, “Fra jord er du kommet” builds up from Nilssen-Love’s gong-reverberation and cymbals smacks that are matched by hard-blowing baritone saxophone snorts plus double bass strings rubbed with sandpaper-like strokes. The finale is as relaxed as it is near balladic.

Relaxed is not the adjective you would apply to the rest of the tunes as Nilssen-Love’s hard rocking cascades, Håker Flaten’s sluicing bass lines and the renal screeches from Gustafsson’ saxophone output enough raw power to defoliate the entire Black Forest. On “Til jord skal du Bli” Gustafsson appear in danger of pulling out many of his internal organs along with fortissimo Nephritic tones as he pumps altissimo phrase after phrase form his horn. The drummer’s multiple ruffs and rebounds add far-reaching rocket-launching-like power to the reedist’s banshee-like shrieks, with the bassist’s chunky propulsions keeping the tune on track. The two covers – Loop’s “The Nail Will Burn” and Wyrd Visions’ “Sigill” are given what now is the standard Thing treatment, with the band is power trio mode: the saxophonist constantly pumping out near-identical phrases, Nilssen-Love unsubtly banging and extended bass pumps keeping the focus.

With the cornet of Goran Kajfeš and the alto saxophone of Anna Högberg overdubbed, the Gustafsson-composed “Aim” takes on wider-ranging properties than the band’s usual Metal band-like modification. Doubled glissandi from Högberg and grace-note soaring from Kajfeš not only puts Gustafsson’s bloated slurs in context, but also allow him to descend from the stratosphere to recap the melody at the end.

These CDs offer the alpha and omega of Gustafsson’s mature style. Both are worth exploring. But a preference for head banging or puzzle-solving will influence your choice(s).

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: March: 1. Barely an Instant Before the March 2. Seated in his Tiny Cage 3. Early in the Treatment

Personnel: March: Mats Gustafsson (soprano and tenor saxophones); Sten Sandell (piano and voice) and Raymond Strid (drums, cymbals and percussion)

Track Listing: Shake: 1. Viking Disco/Perfection 2. Til jord skal du Bli 3. The Nail Will Burn 4. Sigill 5. Aim* 6. Bota Fogo 7. Fra jord er du kommet

Personnel: Shake: Goran Kajfeš (cornet)*; Anna Högberg (alto saxophone)*; Mats Gustafsson (alto, tenor, baritone and slide saxophones and live electronics); Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass and bass guitar); Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)