Mats Gustafsson, now and then

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The Thing (Mats Gustafsson, center)
  • Petra Cvelbar
  • The Thing (Mats Gustafsson, center)
The Scandinavian trio the Thing opens its new album Boot! (The Thing)—the group's first release on its own label—with a treatment of John Coltrane's spiritual, indelible "India" that seethes, stomps, and staggers, as if a Tyrannosaurus rex had decided to try its hand at jazz (you can check it out after the jump). It's a sound Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and the Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love have been developing and honing—although sometimes, at its most bludgeoning, it feels as if they've deliberately dulled its edge rather than sharpening it—for nearly 14 years, refining an almost telepathic interplay while stoking an uncontainable ferocity. When the group hooked up with singer Neneh Cherry a couple of years ago it made plenty of sense, because the Thing could hit as hard as just about any rock band, but now that the collaboration has ended, Boot! finds the trio serving up the most furious sounds of its career.

The move sure feels intentional, as Håker Flaten sticks exclusively to electric bass (deploying a nasty distorted tone that frequently erupts in clouds of acidic feedback and fuzzed-out mayhem), and while the album is mostly original material (along with the take on "India" and one of Duke Ellington's "Heaven"), the jackhammer beats of Nilssen-Love and the snarling bass grooves continue to sound a lot like rock music. Those rhythms remain flexible, with ever-morphing accents, displacements, and tempo shifts, but when the syncopated hand claps kick in during the final moments of "Reboot," I'm reminded of "Shot Down" by the Sonics, where the most primitive of rhythmic devices makes the song work (naturally, the Thing has previously covered tunes by that Seattle protopunk band). Gustafsson is credited with multiple horns here, but it's baritone and bass saxophones that dominate, the better to produce guttural, muscular lines that continually explode in impressive volleys of split tones and screeching harmonics. It says something about the energy Gustafsson and Håker Flaten produce when Nilssen-Love doesn't especially stand out for his aggression (he's a monster here, as usual). While Boot! is the least subtle album the Thing has ever made, I have a hard time believing that the group will remain in this grimy, low-end zone for long. You never know what any given live performance will yield, and no matter how much feel, love, and knowledge this trio has for hard rock and punk, they are dyed-in-the-wool improvisers. That quality will never go away.

Vandermark and Gustafsson
That improvisational ethos is in full display on Verses (Corbett vs. Dempsey), a terrific duo with Chicago's Ken Vandermark recorded live at the label's titular gallery this past March. The two reedists have a long, deep history together going back two decades, playing together in AALY Trio and the Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, among other projects, but this informal performance marked the first time they had ever played duets in public. I was lucky enough to be present for the concert, and the CD supports my memories of a superb set, where the rapport of the performers and their fluently shared language was vividly clear. Each player effortlessly sets up beds for the other to work over—in the opening section of "Ripolin," for example, Vandermark plays a sustained, gently squealing upper register tone on his clarinet that allows Gustafsson to range freely (yet quietly) on his baritone, unleashing percolating blobs of sound and terse gnarled phrases—a simmering windup for the more charged interactions that follow. Engineer David Zuchowski did an excellent job capturing the full spectrum of sounds created that afternoon, especially the clacking of keys, the overspill of breath, and the softest of tones. Perhaps due to the setting, the reedists only occasionally let loose with full fury, but this recording leaves no doubt that even the gentler passages—the sour flurries and hypnotic shimmers throughout "I Never Dreamed," for one—are no less intense and gripping. Below you can check out the comparatively extroverted and wittily titled "Beside Me, Images."

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Corbett vs. Dempsey has also released a key chapter in Gustafsson's history with Chicago musicians on Pipeline, an invaluable document of a fruitful exchange cooked up by the reedist and John Corbett in early 2000 involving eight Swedish musicians and eight Chicagoans (seven, actually, but Boston guitarist Joe Morris was "deputized an honorary member of the Windy City," according to Corbett's liner notes). I have vivid memories of shows at the Empty Bottle and Velvet Lounge when Gustafsson was joined by his bandmates from the trio Gush (pianist Sten Sandell and drummer Raymond Strid) and AALY Trio (drummer Kjell Nordeson) along with some then-unknown players who have since become major figures and regular visitors (reedist Fredrik Ljungvkist, tubaist Per-Äke Holmlander, guitarist David Stackenäs, and bassist Johan Berthling). There were all sorts of sets from various combinations of the Swedes with Vandermark, Morris, reedists Guillermo Gregorio, trombonist Jeb Bishop, pianist Jim Baker, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Kent Kessler, and percussionist Michael Zerang. Near the conclusion of the visit in early September 2000, the entire ensemble gave a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center featuring two commissioned works—by Vandermark and Ljungvkist, respectively—they'd also been recording during the visit at Airwave Studio. Those pieces were supposed to be released by Crazy Wisdom, a great but short-lived label run by Gustafsson and distributed by Universal Records in Sweden, but as Corbett notes, "the parent company wised up (as it were) to the craziness of Mats' roster and shut down CW just before Pipeline was completed." Later in the fall of 2000 the entire crew toured Sweden. Thankfully, CvD rescued the session and we can enjoy the fruits of the early transcontinental project that cemented the ongoing relationship between improvisers in Chicago and Scandinavia (it wasn't long after this that Nilssen-Love and Håker Flaten became deeply entangled in the mix). Each of the pieces clocks in around at 30 minutes; in Vandermark's "Codeine Picasso" you can hear the seeds of his future large-group writing for subsequent ensembles like the Territory Band and the Resonance Ensemble. You can check out three-minute snippets of each piece here and here, although neither can convey the full breadth and variety of these episodic compositions.

Today's playlist:

Syd Barrett, Barrett (Harvest)
Vinny Golia, Marco Eneidi, Lisa Mezzacappa & Vijay Anderson, Hell-Bent in the Pacific (No Business)
Theo Loevendie Consort, Mandela/Chess! (MCN)
Bert Jansch, Heartbreak (Omnivore)
Edward Ricart Quartet, Ancón (Slam)

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