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Sunday, September 6, 2020

An Interview with Mats Gustafsson

Mats Gustafsson. Photo by Peter Gannushkin 

By Sammy Stein

COVID has had a massive impact on the arts. The world of musicians has changed beyond belief. A year ago if someone had said there would be no live gigs, that venues would close their doors to paying audiences and the incomes of musicians, artists and many creative people would fall to zero in an instant, it would have seemed laughable. A ridiculous scenario. Then came COVID19 and the unthinkable was suddenly reality. People had to think quickly and come up with creative ideas to keep their industry going. The pressure on music has been enormous and relentless. Live venues are going to be amongst the last to re-open and many sadly will never open their doors again. Even the few gigs which have been put together have been strange and distanced affairs. On line music has been a salvation and far flung collaborations have come about which have helped but the shock and coming to terms with a very different musical world will have ramifications far into the future because you cannot simply re-start live shows. Rehearsals, planning, forward contingencies and safety rules all have to be considered. It has been a lesson in community seeing how supportive jazz people have been to one another. Reviews, books, new releases are still happening but it is so different.

Mats Gustafsson is known for his energy, his relentless pursuit of new directions, new musical directions and finding the uniqueness of changing collaborators, whilst still returning to tried and trusted musical combos. For him, the sudden shock of not playing live, not travelling and possibly worst of all, not being able to delve into new record shops everywhere he goes, has meant his world turned on its head in many ways. However, he it is also hard to keep him down for long and a little into the lock down period, we argued about the value of reviews, wrote a piece together and in Mats, there is a boundless energy and optimism which wavers at times but always re-surfaces, often in the form of a new idea. He is a musician who can bring others round to his way of thinking in no time at all. I interviewed him last week at the end of a long and difficult period where normality felt like a long distant imagining.

SS : It has been several months now since live gigs happened. Do you feel this has changed the jazz scene long term or do you think that once COVID 19 has eased we will go back to normality?

MG : No, normality is not possible any more. It will be different. Maybe something really good will come out of it. I am guessing it will mean the end of the super-globality we have been watching during recent years. And I really think musicians will pay more attention to local concerts and possibilities which can really be a good thing. But to travel by air the way we used to will not happen for a long time. I' m ready to take all the positive sides and melt them all together and create something unique and strong.

We need to come out of this stronger than ever. There are no ways around that. There are so many global and local stupidities around us. So much racism, sexism and inequalities and it is seemingly getting worse now.

The system kicks in only to give support to the big businesses, even more now than before. At the other end of the chain people are suffering even more.

Art, in general and music in particular has the power of changing things. I truly believe so.

SS : As a musician have you felt support from the jazz community during this period?

MG : Yes, sure. This music is build on the foundations of loyalty, support and community. People are really helping each other out. There has been a lot of funding given to charities especially in the U.S. Also in connection to the BLM movement and related matters. This is good, as in G O O D !

Catalytic Sound* has come together- from the creative ideas and mind of Ken Vandermark - and this really made a lot of supportive actions and proved very impressive. We stand united. This is such an interesting example of musicians taking matters in their own hands and really doing something together but we have a lot of stupidity to fight against.

However, in general it feels like the whole jazz community has stepped up for its members and musicians and helped out in a beautiful way. The support systems from various countries has been a bit on and off. Some countries are fast and some slow and there is a lot of bureaucracy.

In some countries, there is no support but most countries have found a way to support their musicians. But it is far from enough. We all lost so much work and money during the last 5 months. It will be extremely hard to catch up now. Many of my younger colleagues are starting university now. They are becoming nurses, or other non-music related work . It is extremely hard to support oneself now. The art needs help, that is for sure. But we will kick it all back. Wait and see. Wait and hear!

SS : You recently collaborated with Peter Brotzmann again after a long hiatus. How was that?

MG : I have worked a lot with Peter over the years. And now we are back and working on things again a bit. There was a bit of a pause after the Tentet and Sonore but I am still learning so much from Peter - good and bad things - in a never ending process. Some projects are planned. Let's see. We did some amazing concerts in Berlin in November last year. With Caspar ( Brotzmann), Per -Åke, Wertmüller, Pliakas, Jan St, Werner and others. Really amazing stuff! Music that was really pointing in some new and interesting directions and perspectives.

SS : Have you worked with anyone else new to you recently and in what context?

MG : I am always looking for new collaborations. That is part of the game. And because of the present situation there will be much more local activities during the next year or so. New collaborations, to me, has been working with Lukas König and Thomas Stempkowski and some more people. But basically, I have just been working with Christof Kurzmann ( Austrian musician and composer, founder of Charhizma label) in a duo over the last 6 months. I have basically only played with that duo and in solo situations. I love working with Christof and we really have been playing a lot during the lockdown. This is a good thing. Low dynamic ecstasy!

SS : I know you have been writing a lot. Are there books planned?

MG : There are many books planned at the moment. And I even have time to write. One is with Thurston Moore but there are other ideas too.

SS : How is your vinyl collection/business going and has this been affected by the lock down period?

MG : Well, I have had no time no time to spend in record shops at all which is a real bummer! I have been online but it is not as satisfactory as being in a real shop. I have been trading a lot, though. I scored some amazing original posters from the 60s. Some deep jazz shit! Original flyers from Slugs saloon, Cecil Taylor poster from 1962 and more, much more. ESP stuff and I managed to buy a whole collection of spiritual jazz / free jazz privately. Some good stuff indeed. So, this period has not only been bad, haha. The archive needs new fuel all the time. ( Mats has a basement stuffed with his collection).

SS : I know it has been tough personally and you lost your Dad during this time.

MG : Yes, his name was Bengt Anderson . He taught me everything about solidarity and politics and he is much missed.

SS : What are your hopes for the immediate and long term future of jazz, given that the Covid situation hit the industry hard?

MG : Short and long term: an economic catastrophe. So many of my younger (and older) colleagues are really suffering at the moment. It was pretty bad before corona hit us. Things had changed a lot during the last 10 years. The support has been far away from being enough. It is hard to guess where this will end. It looks very bad. However, music, art and poetry will always survive. That is a sure thing. Nothing else matters but we all have a very rough time ahead of us.

On the other side it is truly amazing to see how people have been helping each other out during this crisis. Both BLM and COVID have affected the life and activities of so many people but the attitude has been great among the community which is really assuring. It shows solidarity for real.

I feel very optimistic about continuing working on various projects and also with the groups I have running. I can't help myself, I am always putting together new projects . With some of them we even had to cancel the first gigs already, ha ha! I am going to try to make a quartet with Mette Rasmussen, Ingebrigt Flaten and Will Guthrie which will happen over the winter.

I am also enjoying loads of time with the family at the moment, which is great for my life and for music. I am also catching up on many recording projects, mixing and writing as well. In my view, we have to use this weird time in a good and creative way. There are loads of creative things to do and make happen. Is say, let's do it!

*Catalytic Sound is a cooperative of musicians coming together to support each other through sustainable support and generates revenue directly for musicians by purchasing records from independent labels. Some of the income goes to developing new projects.