The Thing are veritable monsters – what is especially great about them is their toughness and dedication. Mats Gustafsson (soprano, tenor, baritone and bass saxes), Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) always punch you in the face, even if you think you’re prepared. Since 2001 they have released more than ten albums, starting as a trio before they started to invite guest musicians like Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Otomo Yoshihide, Jim O’Rourke or Barry Guy. Their recent collaboration with Neneh Cherry was a surprise – for their fans as well as for those of Don Cherry’s stepdaughter (they named the band after one of his tracks). For their new album they’ve gone back to their trio roots and sound rawer, more brutal and deconstructivist than ever before.
A constant of their work is that they always play cover versions (the album with Neneh Cherry is almost pure covers) mainly and preferably rock songs – Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” on “Two Bands and a Legend”, Lightning Bolt’s “Ride the Sky” on “Metal!” or “Aluminium” by The White Stripes on “Live at Blå”, just to name a few – tunes dipped into a thick free jazz sauce, but which come out as if they were typical The Thing compositions.
On their new album they do it the other way round: they have chosen two jazz classics by John Coltrane (“India”) and Duke Ellington (“Heaven”) and present them in a new (rock) disguise. Whereas in the original Coltrane’s soprano intro creates an atmosphere in which you can smell cardamom, ginger and coriander and where snake charmers seem to be at work, The Thing focus on Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet chords. Gustafsson’s bass saxophone repetition of the tune’s head makes “India” sound like a hellhole, a purgatory of a slum where people live under degrading conditions. Hardly anything of Coltrane’s vertiginous runs, elegant lines and untethered flurries are left. It’s Black Sabbath’s reduced darkness rather than Trane’s bright polytonality. The connection to the original however, is Paal Nilssen-Love, whose playing is reminiscent of his idol, Elvin Jones. You can recognize the track’s characteristic two-note theme – but put through a particle accelerator. The track ends with Nilssen-Love relentlessly hitting his cymbal.
The approach for Duke Ellington´s “Heaven” (from Ellington’s “Second Concert of Sacred Music”) is quite different: Gustafsson’s arrangement is such that the original is hardly recognizable. While Ellington’s composition speaks of heaven as a dream – something divine and supreme, a sweet and pretty thing – The Thing’s idea of heaven is distorted, dirty and unwelcoming, a maze like the melody itself.
But what is really new on “Boot!” is that Ingebrigt Håker Flaten is exclusively on electric bass. His relentlessly repetitive bass playing brings the band closer to Gustafsson’s other long-term trio: Fire!. It’s no surprise therefore, that the highlight of the album is Håker Flaten’s composition “Red River”, which is based on a riff Led Zeppelin would be proud of. Although Robert Plant has made it clear that he’s not interested in a Led Zeppelin reunion, if he were to change his mind he should seriously consider Paal Nilssen-Love as a replacement for John Bonham. Maybe somebody should play the 14-minute “Epilog” to him, a free jazz bungee jump with Nilssen-Love’s raucous snare rolls bumping over a slow two-step sax theme (I am only joking - Jason Bonham has done a fine job at their O2 reunion gig).
What a hell of a record – in its literal sense!
“Boot!” is available on vinyl and CD (with “Epilog” as a bonus track).
You can listen to “India” here and the album is available at instantjazz.com.