|Fire! Orchestra in Austria, photo by Eyal Hareuveni|
By Eyal Hareuveni
European jazz festivals often publicize the performances of the Fire! Orchestra as once in a lifetime experience. The festival publicists know their audiences. How often does one gets to see a big band of 18 great, opinionated improvisers, most of them leaders in their own right, sharing the same stage? And when experiencing the Fire! Orchestra you are guaranteed that all play with fiery passion and great imagination, fucking up genres and borders, as the Orchestra leader Mats Gustafsson like to say, mixing free improvised music, contemporary music, electronica, psych, free jazz and prog rock.
The Orchestra's last 8-stop Europa Bus Tour presented its third work, ‘Ritual,’ performed by the Orchestra for over a year now and released a studio version earlier this year on the Rune Grammofon label. The performance in the acclaimed Viennese club Porgy & Bess - the fifth stop in the tour - was the third time that I experienced the Fire! Orchestra performing ‘Ritual’, after two memorable performances at the Jazzhouse club during the Copenhagen Jazz Festival last July. All the performances were different, and obviously different from the recorded version, though ‘Ritual’ is still orchestrated as a five-movements piece, based on the anti-war lyrics of modern Swedish poet Erik Lindegren.
But before beginning with ‘Ritual’, the first part of the performance was dedicated to short solo free-improvised performances of musicians of the Orchestra that emphasized the expansive, inclusive vocabulary of the Orchestra. Guitarist Finn Loxbo opened with a noisy texture, nuanced and imaginative and stormy in its spirit. Sax player Lotte Anker and trombonist Mats Äleklint followed with a playful duet that stressed their personal extended breathing techniques. Vocalist Sofia Jernberg concluded with a beautiful exploration of strange voices.
And then the Ritual began, if you experienced this work only through its recorded version you may have experienced only part of it. The recorded ‘Ritual’ radiates a feeling that all parts of this complex piece fell into place, while the live performance charges ‘Ritual’ with a sense of wild urgency, as if it is still a work in progress, Still, the recorded version and more so the live performances offer a unique kind of a magical sonic ritual that possesses you from its first second to its last one, submitting you to its transformative, healing power.
You may begin to understand its power by recognizing your total, immediate surrender to the pure, addictive driving force of Fire!, the original trio of Gustafsson, usually playing the baritone sax, Johan Berthling on electric bass and Andreas Welin on drums. These three, augmented by drummer Mads Forsby, set the powerful, hypnotic riffs that are the basis of all Fire! Orchestra works. Their rhythmic drive ignites ‘Ritual’ throughout its many changes, with Berthling behind all as the main navigator of the Orchestra thunderous pulse with his assured, powerful playing.
Upon these massive rhythmic foundations the loose architecture of ‘Ritual’ is developed. The trumpeters Niklas Barnö and American Nate Wooley (in his first tour with the Fire! Orchestra) add a dimension of lyricism and abstract expressiveness. Sax players Anna Högberg, Mette Rasmussen and Anker complements Gustafsson commanding sax wails with strong, highly personal solos. Trombonist Äleklint has a perfect timing and his solos always show his unique language, while tuba player Per-Åke Holmlander injects a necessary dose of humor in his solos. Bass sax and clarinet player Per 'Texas' Johansson, who joined the Fire! Orchestra only with the recording of ‘Ritual’, is now one of its key members. He adds the deep-toned colors of the bass sax, but his solos on the the clarinets family are truly breathtaking, intuitive and melodic, charged with lasting emotional impact. Guitarists Loxbo and Julien Desprez, keyboards player Martin Hederos and electronics player Andreas Berthling expands the sonic envelope with abstract noisy textures and weird sounds.
It may sound as recipe for a chaotic, bombastic extravaganza but the Orchestra plays as a tight and focused unit. The Orchestra personnel is full with some eccentric, highly individual musicians, but play in an exemplary emphatic interplay that in any given moment attempts to expand its sonic envelope. Leading all are vocalists Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg. Both deliver the poetic lyrics with such charismatic conviction, complementing each other with remarkable elegance, power and rare beauty. You can easily imagine these two eloquent vocalists leading masses - orchestra, audience, listeners everywhere around the universe - to a new enlightened age. And of course, Gustafsson, who navigates and conducts this passionate celebration with natural authority and typical intense, driving force, pushing all - musicians and audience - to another ecstatic experience.
Gustafsson likes to quote fellow musician, sax legend Joe McPhee who says : “Don’t postpone JOY!”. The Fire Orchestra will perform again this summer. Reserve your tickets now, you will thank me later.