Swedish sax-titan Mats Gustafsson's volume of activity, including the many albums that he constantly releases, in every possible format, competes only with the intensity of his playing. The recent duos from Gustafsson stress the rich spectrum of his art.
Mats Gustafsson & Craig Taborn - Ljubljana (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½
Ljubljana is the 400th release of the Portuguese label and it celebrates this occasion with a special vinyl album that documents the first ever musical meeting between Gustafsson and American pianist Craig Taborn at the 2015 edition of the Ljubljana Jazz Festival. Gustafsson referred to this meeting as “a kick in the ass”, even begged afterwards: “please, give me more challenges like this one, in order to keep my sanity!”
Ljubljana does sounds like a meeting where some mean blows and kicks were exchanged. A muscular wrestling of heavy-weights champions of spontaneous improvisations, both as serious as their lives. Gustafsson sets the confronting tone of the first side, “The Eyes Moving. Slowly”, with dense and volcanic attacks of his baritone sax. But just when it sounds likeTaborn surrenders unconditionally to Gustafsson's lava flow he surprises and turns the intense course to a sparse and reserved meditation. Even on these quiet moments, before both resume the dense and powerful interplay, the tone is raw and rough and far as possible from the refined and polished one that can be found on Taborn's ECM albums, including the new Daylight Ghosts.
After establishing their rapport, the second side, “The Ears Facing the Fantasies. Again”, offers an open exchange of ideas. Both sound as enjoying exploring each other’s territory, disrupting its sonic scenery, exchange themes and alternate between improvisation strategies, even bare some fragile, melodic qualities when Gustafsson picks the slide saxophone. Both correspond immediately to each other’s gestures and never exhaust this playful and demanding process. Needless to say, the neither Gustafsson or Taborn feel any need to compromise or blur their distinct, strong-minded personalities.
Mats Gustafsson/ Alfred Vogel - Blow+Beat (Boomslang, 2017) ***½
Gustafsson’s long-standing trio The Thing performed last August at Beazau Beatz, Austrian drummer Alfred Vogel's annual festival, located at the resort town Beazau, at the western tip of the Austrian border. Gustafsson spent the weekend at this town and after a decent rest joined Vogel for a short session that yielded Blow+Beat.
Gustafsson challenges Vogel already on the first piece, “Solid electric glitter”, with a massive torrent of fast breathes and blows that only gets more intense and mightier, about to drown anything in its manic drive. Vogel accentuates and colors these tsunamis of blows but there is nothing else that he can do. But on the following, “Our thoughts split”, the two explore more balanced and varied dynamics, beginning with negotiating muscular and highly rhythmic free jazz terrains and later, suddenly morphing to some intimate and sparse sonic searches.
After exploring these sonic poles, Gustafsson and Vogel are ready to expand the palette even more. The 18-minutes “Clean my house” is a masterful free-improvisation. Gustafsson sings beautifully like a free bird, full of passion and emotion, soars high and sketches imaginary, poetic routes while Vogel colors this sonic journey with clever, inventive percussive touches, solid as the earth pulse. The following, brief four pieces sound like ironic, playful comments on the previous dynamics. These concise pieces adopt a nouveau-punk mentality, stick only to the essentials and throw all the rest.
Mats Gustafsson & Joachim Nordwall - A Map of Guilt (Bocian, 2017) ***
This is the most experimental album of the three duos. John Nordwall is the founder of the experimental Göteborg-based label iDEAL Recordings. He has played electronics on the first albums of Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra (Exit!, Second Exit, Enter, 2013, 2014, all on Rune Grammofon). Gustafsson returned the favor and released for iDEAL Recordings one of his soon-to-be a collectors-items, a limited-edition solo 7’’ vinyl, Lap Dance/Table Solos (45 rpm, 2014, only 200 copies were printed on a “tasty” transparent vinyl).
Nordwall is credited with “guitar wanking” and “synth loving” while Gustafsson with “blowing stuff”, “organ surfing” and “piano mating”. The duo was recorded at the Viennese Garnison7 studio on January 2013. The short opening piece, “The smell on her arms”, sets the album eccentric atmosphere. It features Gustafsson breathing into the baritone sax and adds percussive touches with the sax keys while Nordwall colors the piece with subtle electronics sounds. The title piece is a 19-minutes atmospheric drone that offers waves and whirlwinds of troubled, distorted sounds, The other shorter pieces continue this minimalist-psychedelic vein but with more concrete and tangible, raw breathes through the sax and touches on the guitar strings, still maintain the basic, naked vibe of the opening piece. Only the last piece, “Marks covered by wet cloth”, is charged with a noisy urgency, much needed intense energy and even traces of fragmented, tortured melody.