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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Colin Stetson & Mats Gustafsson - Stones (Rune Grammofon, 2012) *****

Music for two saxophones and dialogue for two voices

By Martin Schray and Paolo Casertano
M - Whenever I listen to Mats Gustafsson or Colin Stetson I hear an enormous physicality. I imagine them headbanging to their own music, like these toy birds picking up food or water. And I see them struggling with their huge instruments, fascinated by the sounds their instruments can create. So, on the one hand their cooperation sounds like a match made in heaven but on the other hand their music is - despite all similarities - quite different. Gustafsson is notorious for his highly energetic style, he takes no prisoners, while Stetson seems to be more refined integrating minimal riffs and circular breathing. How do you feel about that, Paolo?

P - I agree with you, Martin. Let's compare, for example, the recently quoted “Needs” by Gustafsson with its buzzing engines to the melodic accessibility - and I say this as an absolute worthiness - of “New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges” by Stetson. For sure Gustafsson can boast on a far more extended discography than Stetson, spanning from traditional interpretation to extreme experimentalism, from solo to very large ensemble. But this is a live recording and not a studio take, so I really wonder how this cooperation has been settled. I'm persuading myself that someone must have cheated on them. Something like: “Would you come and play tonight for a solo set at the Vancouver Jazz Fest? Be sure no other sax players will be there the same night!” Whatever way it went, I must admit they're not the first two saxophonists coming into my mind for a duo.

M - Absolutely right, Paolo. All the more if you consider the fact that sax duos are relatively rare. There are some on FMP (one of my all-time favorites is Koch/Fuchs/Parker/Sclavis’s “Duets dithyrambisch”, for example, or Lacy/Parker’s “Chirps”) and, of course, Jarman/Braxton’s wonderful “Together Alone”. The idea seems to be born out of the moment, even in the aftermath Gustafsson sounds as if he was blindsided. He said about the concert: “No escape ... nothing to hide ... you just need to go out there and interact!” But let’s talk about the music now.

P - Martin, don't you think that the most prominent aspect of this album is the capacity of the two players to blend their tunes more than setting a dialogue as in a traditional duet? This really seems to be the core of their approach to improvisation, no role or function is given in advance. They chase each other towards high pitches dismantling the rhythmic section in the most avantgardish style á la Philip Glass, or swiftly turn to melodic and dramatic bluesy phrasings as you can see at the end of “Stones that only be”. The symbiosis resulting from their interaction is so complete that what you have back is a sort of doppelgänger musician trying to surprise himself about where his music is really going.

M - At the very beginning of the first track “Stones that rest heavily” they sound like two opera singers warming up before one seems to lose track sounding like a thirsty, dangerous animal which is put on a strange drug. Then, after two minutes, the track starts anew, which is structurally a very similar beginning as on Stetson’s “New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges”. Only here he plays it with Gustafsson, his ugly twin, who was hidden from the rest of the family. And that’s where the music goes: it really reminds me of sex (are we allowed to say this?), passionate and greedy, exuberant, but also very tender, as if lovers were exploring their bodies for the first time (including outbursts of joy). What do you think, Paolo?

P - Totally true, Martin! I really like the long and slow passage of sustained trembling notes in the low register around minute four. I must admit I'm enchanted moreover by Stetson's timbre. He has developed these kind of hoarse death throes where Gustafsson can lean on to climb towards high pitches. It's really like an animal courtship that brings us, around minute seven, to the fight. The cohesiveness is then disrupted by syncopated assaults of cutting notes. But exactly as two deer stuck together by antlers, once the acme is reached, they need to loose and that's why we have this far relaxed atmosphere opening "Stones that only be", like two friends remembering their reckless youth. Have you heard the double tapping of minute three and a half? They must be happy! I have now a question for you. I know you're an earnest "Gustafssonian", so, listening to the beginning of "Stones that need not", in my opinion again really "Stetsonian", how do you interpret this? I mean that there is something more standardized and recognizable in Stetson's sound that conform the presence of the heterogeneous and eclectic (that's for sure!) Mats Gustafsson. Or is the Swedish axe giving his young friend the privilege to throw down the gauntlet and choose his best weapon so that he can follow him to his territory?

M - It is a typical Stetson beginning, no doubt. Maybe the fact that the album is dedicated to Sweden’s influential outsider poet Gunnar Ekelöf helps us here. Ekelöf once said: “I have only studied, unsystematically, things which could have some importance for my work as a poet. For the work of a poet is vision and form, and I praise the particular God who has made me capable of translating even dull facts in thick tomes into vision”. I guess this is what Gustafsson also does, he is interested in the music of others and - with Stetson being one of the most outstanding players of the younger generation - he is fascinated by his structural austerity and adds his vision to it. Stetson is dominating the beginning of the track, however, Gustafsson tempts him constantly to leave his well-structured playing, he is luring him away to more open pastures until Stetson submits himself. The second half is the meeting for the cup final, the showdown. Both have met each other at eye level, they are firing their musical magazines at the audience until they are almost empty – one of my favorite moments on the album. So, after all, what is your impression of the album?

P - Is it an aural hallucination given by the fight of saxophones or at the very beginning of  “Stones that only have” the duo is for a brief moment a trio counting the far cry of a child in the audience? - and I want to send my admiration to his parents here for the musical education they’re providing. By the way, this is a great album, Martin, and I like this notion of the artist as someone so in love with his art that is not interested in prevailing on someone else “flexing his muscles”, he can just stay still and stare enraptured by the beauty of what is listening, choosing the right moment to speak. Gustafsson is certainly a total musician, a great improviser in any conceivable formation and an artist devoted to the development of music in general. Stetson is a great promise and worthily joins the first. Considering that in the production of the younger a conspicuous amount of composition is evident by now, and considering as well that this is a live recording, I’d really like to see this same couple in a studio production. The most important thing is that they will give us other unforgettable meetings as this one.


Stef said...

Excellent review. Very creative approach. A nice mirror image to the album. :-) I can't wait to listen to it myself.

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