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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The phenomenal Mats Gustafsson

By Stef 

Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson is without a doubt one of the most forceful players ever, combining a ferocity that surpasses Brötzmann with a technique equalling the best and adding an emotional howl that is his unique signature. He is on top of this a real music lover, collector of music in all its diversity and form, interested in new things, quite respectful of the jazz ancestors and his great favorite musicians, such as Don Cherry and Albert Ayler. If Vandermark makes it often a must to put all his weight in composition and in technical complexities, Gustafsson is more of the expressionist, simplifying his music to the most direct and authentic form, and putting all the emphasis on raw yet subtle emotional delivery.

Apart from the albums mentioned below, we can also look out with lots of expectation for two new albums by The Thing, one with Barry Guy and one with Don Cherry's daughter Neneh. More about this later.

Kieran Hebden, Steve Reid, Mats Gustafsson - Live At The South Bank (Smalltown Superjazzz, 2011) *****

Drummer Steve Reid passed away in 2010 and this is possibly his last recorded work. Reid played with jazz luminaries such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sun Ra, but was also a soul and Motown session musician. He was 35 years older than British post-rock electronics wizard Kieran Hebden. For this double album, Gustafsson joins the duo for eighty-five minutes of hypnotic highly rhythmic trance-inducing musical madness.

The atmosphere is dark, heavy, apocalyptic, doomed somehow, almost like an electronic tribal dance to chase industrial demons and plead for final redemption. All the tracks are long, very long, taking the time to set the scene, develop the character and take all the listeners on board for this incredible journey.

I am not sure how I would have felt about this album without Gustafsson, but I can assure you that his contribution adds the vital human level of agony and distress and emotional outburst that takes the whole thing to a different plane. The opening track "Morning Prayer" and the absolutely mesmerising "Untitled" are absolutely phenomenal, with Gustafsson wailing, screaming, howling like only he can do it, almost without changing notes, over a one-chord repetitive wall of sound. Madness.

Incredible, phenomenal.

Swedish Azz-Azz Appeal (Not Two, 2011) ***

The Swedish Azz series brings tribute to the Swedish jazz musicians and composers from the sixties, but then with a modern twist, in which the traditionally rendered compositions are slightly transfigured by electronics and present-day concepts.

Mats Gustafsson is on alto, baritone, slide saxophones and live-electronics, Per-Åke Holmlander on tuba and cimbasso, Kjell Nordeson on vibes, Dieb13 on grammophone and live-electronics, and Erik Carlsson on drums.

The end result is fun and entertaining, as its intention is.

Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love & Mesele Asmamaw - Baro 101 (Terp Records, 2012) ***½

Despite having been recorded in a hotel room in Addis Abeba, capital of Ethiopia, this LP does not suffer too much from the context. Gustafsson plays baritone saxophone, Paal Nilssen-Love drums and they are joined by the Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw.

The playing is good, free form but rhythmic, with a great Ethiopian flavor, especially when Mesele starts singing on the second side. His krar is at times a little weak compared to the power of the two Europeans, but otherwise the trio adapts quite well to each other, with Gustafsson sounding very Ayleresque, bluesy and spiritual and rhythmic in his approach, with Love and Asmamaw enjoying the openness, which is at times a little chaotic and unfocused, yet that also adds to the spontaneity and the fun.

Fire! with Jim O'Rourke - Released! (Rune Grammofon, 2011) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Essentially this short review is an update to the excellent one (really long) sentence write up from Stef a few months back on the main release "Unreleased". "Released" is 11 more minutes of music that was not released when the "Unreleased" was released. This seems to be something that the folks at Rune Grammophone have been up to with some recent recordings, and in this case, "Released" is presented as a 10" EP on vinyl.

These two additional tracks from Fire!, which is the collective of Mats Gustafsson on sax and Fender Rhodes, Johan Berthling on bass and Andreas Werliin on drums and guest guitarist Jim O'Rourke, follow suit. "Certainly those older and released …" and "Particular, local and plastic wrapped" are two interesting tracks, the first one is a minimalist piece, lots of electronics, that just seems to simmer digitally. The sax adds a bit of subdued melody in between the electronic chatter, the guitar adds some texture, the bass and drums add some pulse, but it is generally an electronic soundcape that builds tension with its restraint. The second song, however, picks up with Gustaffson's sax quickly building in volume and intensity. As the bass and drums join, soon it is ablaze and the previous soundscape is replaced with a driving musical howl. The electronics on this one flip their role, this time they serve to heighten the drama and pathos contained within, and the acoustic instruments take center stage. It's a cathartic listen as the song reaches its climax, after which the listener is finally released.

A fine encore performance.


Anonymous said...

And The thing's new album with Barry Guy sound amazing too !!

Thank a lot for your great work !!

Richard said...

The best thing of all about Mats is getting to see him live. I've seen him with The Thing, Sonore, and sitting in with Gord Grdina's trio. All those shows would be very high on my list of favourites.

The Thing with Barry Guy sounds almost too good to be true. Can't wait to hear it.

I would agree with Stef's 5-star review of Released/Unreleased. But I have to say it's a bit annoying that they held some material back in the first version.

Anonymous said...

Mats Gustafsson deserves these great reviews, especially the record with Reid and Hebden is terrific - I really recommend the vinyl version. The same goes for the Fire! record. I think we're all looking forward to The Thing with Barry Guy, obviously a reminiscence to Amalgam - also released on the fabulous Lithuanian No Business label. The Thing with Neneh Cherry also sounds really interesting, check this out:

Go on, Stef.
You are my favourite blog for this music.

Berg said...

what's so phenomenal about Mats Gustafsson? Playing loud and raucous in easy keys has been going on since the R'n'B players of the 40's and 50's. Earl Bostic was more technically adept than Mats G will ever be and there's plenty of modern day sax players who could run rings around him. I've watched Mats play and he's no Albert Ayler. Virginia Genta is way more talented

joesh said...

Hi Berg

I'm also not a big fan of Mats over the top blowing style. However, after reading your comment I had a quick look at Virginia Genta and must say I didn't really see anything different than Mats Gustafsson, in fact it just made me think 'more of the same'. I guess there are those who believe in a subtle approach, and others that prefer to take no prisoners. I suppose it's a matter of taste in the end.

Thanks for your comment.