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Thursday, March 10, 2022

Mats Gustafsson and Tony Lugo - Vertical (Superpang, 2022) ***½

By Sammy Stein

Italian label Superpang have released Vertical by Mats Gustafsson and Tony Lugo who have created something which is different for both of them – or so the press release goes. Yet actually, whilst this may be different for Lugo, for Gustafsson it feels like another venture – a different direction as he continues his ceaseless exploration of music. Much on here is reminiscent of material he has done before but although this is a duo album there is a third presence – and one which Gustafsson is exploring more these days – the machine.

The use of the new tool has led to an exploration of new and old techniques and the addition to both of different sounds and expression. Gustafsson and Lugo were connected by mutual friends, the music sent back and forth and the machine added to create ‘AI tools and algorithms’ (so the press release tells me).

However, the listen is everything with music and this is how I view it. It is interactive, improvised music however you create it and the players – the real ones - make this recording, not the machine, although there are times it adds to it with warps and progressions perhaps emanating from some kind of intelligence behind the faceless presence.

‘Looking At Silence’ is heralded by a drum roll – and well it may be. A track of outpouring, emotive sounds, this is a track and a half. Just over two and a half minutes, the track has only one short coming – the short part.

‘Reduced Necessity’ sees a headlong vault off a cliff of sound, the spiraling nature feeling like a rapid descent to – what? Oblivion? Not by a long chalk, Gustafsson has you and your ears and the control of the percussion is phenomenal. There is order in this mayhem but you have to find it. Once you do, you cannot help but be propelled by the ever more closely entwined call and responses of the two players. The middle 8 bars give way to a sense of direction being lost but quickly, it is regained and order is restored.

‘Flesh Jazz’ is strange, eerie and filled with menace before it flip-flops into order and the pair of musicians take ideas, swap and exchange formats and their sound reverberates to the rafters in ethereal song-like sighs and reverie, Gustafsson proving his free work on flute has developed in recent years.

‘Gravel’ is perfectly titled as the pieces of the track change in size, colour and depth, just like gravel whilst ‘Looking (At Silence) is guttural, in your face, free flowing improvisational study.

‘Reciprocal Violence’ is completely free, with stuttering, mutterings and pivotal tempo changes, created and led by the percussion and electronically enhanced overlays. Growls, voiced interludes and devil-voiced stutterings add to the atmosphere. The beautifully clever slap tongued, stut phrases towards the final half lift this track, Gustafsson playing out of his skin.

‘Vertical’ is noisy, intriguing and captivating. The to and fro, throwing and returning between sax and percussion is almost ridiculous in its easy, conversational aspect. The complex, thickly layered musings are introduced, echoed and returned sling-shot like from one musician to the other in a continuum of disparate, yet understandable and relatable sounds.

Never one to remain within the boundaries of his instrument, Gustafsson has met a kindred spirit in Lugo and the pair tackle the intricacies head on, reveling in the utter control they each have over their delivery. The sudden stops are as effective as the sounds in the second half with Gustafsson musing over a set of triads before descending and ascending through the keys as if possessed, the percussion following, then leading in turn. Following the machination is hard if you concentrate but the key is to relax, let the music pour and flow. Then it is an easy immersion.

The sounds Gustafsson ekes from his saxophone are intriguing and show just what a musician can do, given the skill set and talent, with a tube, set of keys and a good dose of bravado. An album touted as wildly different, yet offering much of the same explorative and essential Gustafsson we have come to know. Good thing too.

Mats Gustafsson: Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass Saxophones Flute
Tony Lugo: Drums, Electronics
Mats Gustafsson & Tony Lugo: Concatenative Synthesis & Machine Listening Algorithms
Artwork by Peter Brötzmann, "Vertical" (1963)