This is a great picture; I wonder what they were talking about. Does anyone know the year, location and occasion?
(Photograph © Gérard Rouy)
This is a great picture; I wonder what they were talking about. Does anyone know the year, location and occasion?
(Photograph © Gérard Rouy)
Another superb and – let’s not forget – entertaining evening of high-powered free jazz from two masters of the art. What with all the vague descriptors of power and intensity I keep reaching for in my fumbling attempts to describe why I love this music so much, it’s easy to forget how hugely enjoyable this stuff is. Watching these guys it’s hard not to break into a broad grin at the sheer audacity and confidence of it all, quite apart from the fact that they are clearly having a great time onstage themselves and that it’s utterly infectious.
Furthermore, there’s a palpable sense of involvement here as well. Bizarre as it may sound, the closest parallel I can think of is with watching your favourite football team, or (to take an example from my recent experience), watching your son take part in his first football tournament. You’re willing them on, urging them (often audibly) to ever greater heights, and when those heights are reached, you celebrate together with them. With very few exceptions (Swans and Godspeed You Black Emperor spring to mind), that kind of delirious communion between performer and audience is something I’ve never come close to experiencing at a rock concert.
Anyway, this evening saw the American saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark squaring up to Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Vandermark’s playing ranged from swinging Ayleresque Fire Music to out-and-out free sections, via quiet lyrical passages and an arsenal of attacks on the reed which produced all manner of way-out clicking sounds. There were exhilarating sections of circular breathing as well, Vandermark proving himself the equal of Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton in his mastery of this most challenging of techniques. Whether on clarinet, tenor or baritone sax (the latter borrowed for the evening from Mats Gustafsson, fact fans), Vandermark’s performance was superbly gripping.
You couldn’t say any less than that about Nilssen-Love, either. Here’s another musician who was clearly having great fun onstage, with huge smiles lighting up his face at the beginning and end of each piece. While playing, though, he’s a study in relentlessness, his shirt getting steadily drenched in sweat as he produces an astonishing battery of percussive rhythms and dramatic textural interventions. Driving the saxophonist on to ever more frenzied bursts of manic inventiveness, Nilssen-Love shot electric sparks from his drumkit with every movement. Together, the two men touched awe-inspiring levels of energy and creativity.
If you’re tired of the usual New Year’s Eve party locations, or you don’t much fancy having firecrackers thrown in your face by children on Stephansplatz, why not head over to the Rhiz for a special end-of-year show by Bulbul? This fun-loving Austrian trio are a regular fixture on the Vienna live circuit, bringing home the point that there’s nothing like frequent gigging if you’re a band that wants to get noticed. Fresh from his triumphant appearance with Jandek in October, drummer Didi Kern will be joined by Raumschiff Engelmayr and Derhunt (possibly not his real name) for an evening of angular, splintery rock with lots of distorted guitar and pounding bass – the ideal way to wave goodbye to the old year and say hello to 2010.
My final recommendation of the year also goes to an Austrian group, The Scarabeusdream. The duo from Burgenland serve up an electrifying mix of keyboards, drums and screamed-out vocals. Pianist Bernd Supper approaches the keyboard like he’s fighting with it, standing up to play and hammering relentlessly down on the keys, while drummer Hannes Moser’s engagement with his kit is similarly deranged and physical. The group’s début album Sample Your Heartbeat To Stay Alive showcases their aggressively minimalist approach to great effect.
Another cracking month for concerts. Top of the list is the visit of Six Organs of Admittance, playing in the grimy surroundings of the Kleine Halle at the Arena. Six Organs is more or less guitarist Ben Chasny, joined by various collaborators for both live and studio work. Chasny tends to get lumped in with the “weird folk” crowd, which is actually not a bad shorthand for his uncanny and hypnotic blend of acoustic guitar-driven, mostly instrumental music. Calling to mind mystical Eastern ragas alongside the primitivist fingerpicking style of the late John Fahey, Six Organs music sparkles with melodic invention. On this tour, Chasny will be joined by electric guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, whose playing is as thrilling to watch as it is to listen to, and Alex Neilson, one of the most gifted and inventive drummers of modern times.
Moving right along, there’s an unmissable evening of free jazz and improvisation at the excellent Blue Tomato club this month, featuring two of the key figures in the genre. American saxophonist Ken Vandermark is a workaholic who spends most of his life on the road. His fierce and passionate playing effortlessly combines the swinging Fire Music style of Albert Ayler with the more abstract European style of Peter Brötzmann. Like most free jazz musicians, Vandermark has a list of collaborators as long as your arm; he’s one of those who believes in improvisation and ad hoc groupings as essential elements in keeping the music fresh and vital. On this occasion he’ll be joined by the awesomely talented Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love, sticksman with The Thing (see the March 2009 issue of Ether), Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and too many others to mention. This kind of duo concert, with two musicians facing up to each other onstage with no preconceived notions of what they are going to play, represents for me the perfectly symmetrical essence of free improvisation.
And rounding things off, a very different kind of duo, KTL, the guitar and laptop pairing of Sunn O))) mastermind Stephen O’Malley and Vienna’s very own Peter Rehberg. O’Malley is the master of the drone guitar, playing pulverizingly loud sub-bass frequencies that resonate deep within you. Rehberg, meanwhile, coaxes all manner of hectic and crystalline sounds from his laptop. As well as being a formidable presence with their own records and concerts, KTL have often created music for dance and theatre pieces. It’s a natural move for them, therefore, to make film soundtrack music. As part of this year’s Wien Modern festival, they’ll be performing their own score to the classic early Swedish silent horror film, The Phantom Carriage, live as the film is shown.
My friend Geoff Smith from Brighton (see here for a review of the first album by his former group Attacco Decente, and here for a review of his early film soundtracks) has finally realized his ten-year dream of creating a microtonally fluid acoustic piano, an instrument that is set to revolutionize the way we think about and relate to the piano.
The first of two thrilling free jazz gigs at the Blue Tomato in the space of three days. What with these two, and the Sonore/Thing soundclash last month, this unassuming venue in the wilds of the 15th district is at the very top of its game right now. Ken Vandermark says that this place and Alchemia in Krakow are the two best jazz clubs in Europe, and he should know.
Whenever I’ve seen Mats Gustafsson play before, it’s been with Peter Brötzmann – either with Sonore, or as part of the Chicago Tentet. He’s always been a powerful presence, but at the same time he’s occasionally been overshadowed by the ferocity of Brötzmann’s blowing. Last time I saw the Tentet at Porgy & Bess, it seemed to me that the Swedish saxophonist’s prodigious physicality was underused. The solution, naturally, is to give the man his own trio – and that’s precisely what we got at the Blue Tomato this week.
I say that, but of course this was a long way from being The Mats Gustafsson Trio. (Sidenote: with the exception of the Schlippenbach Trio, you just don’t get that highlighting of one person as the leader in the names of free improv groups, which is just as it should be.) Joining Gustafsson were Barry Guy on double bass and Raymond Strid on drums, neither of whom I had seen play live before. Guy, however, was known to me through his work with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton – in fact, Parker/Guy/Lytton’s Live at the Vortex album on Emanem was the first free improv record I ever heard, and for that reason it’s an album I cherish with great affection.
Anyway, the point is that each member of this trio contributed equally to the great firestorm of sound that was kicked up. Strid was a consistently agile and forceful percussionist, as well as being great fun to watch with his varied approach to his cymbals, gongs and whatnot. Guy, meanwhile, was simply breathtaking. I’ve never really “got” the double bass before, it’s always seemed a little bit too trad-jazzy for my liking (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s assault on the instrument notwithstanding). But I sure as heck “got” it tonight, as Guy proceeded to play the bass in ways I never knew were possible. Switching fluidly between arco and pizzicato, he stuck sticks between the strings, rapidly and expertly travelled his way up and down the length of the neck, and generally flayed hell out of the thing. And he did so with, often, the broadest of smiles on his face. It was sheer joy to behold.
As for Gustafsson, his playing on the saxophone was overwhelming. Whether he’s soloing tenderly and lyrically, producing a range of unusual sounds by tonguing the reed, or delivering a majestically deep and resonant melody, the man is never less than compelling. And the strength of his commitment to live performance couldn’t be clearer. With his face getting redder and redder, the sweat dripping off him and his veins threatening to burst at any time, Gustafsson is a viscerally enthralling performer.
Excellent evening of high-intensity rock from the gifted Ben Chasny and his group. The paradox of Chasny is that, even as he plays the guitar with raga-like flourishes that effortlessly and emotionally recall Indian sitar music, he conjures up sounds that seem to point towards a new, daring and thrillingly original future for rock. It’s a remarkable and highly original combination, and it works magnificently.
Joining Chasny were Elisa Ambrogio on guitar and devices, Andrew Mitchell on guitar and Alex Neilson on drums. On the two previous occasions I’ve seen Ambrogio play (both with Chasny, in fact), I’ve been hugely impressed by her overtly physical approach to the guitar. She seemed to take a while to get going tonight – her presence for much of the set was rather subdued. But once she hit full stride she was unstoppable, her endless squalls of drones and feedback forming a powerful complement to Chasny’s glistening satori-heavy modes. Alex Neilson, meanwhile, was a sweeping and generous presence on the drums, his oceanic patterns weaving and diving around the interlocking vectors of the three guitars. Mystical and transcendentally inspired, but without the slightest hint of hippy tosh, Six Organs of Admittance are harsh and beautiful.
And the live soundtracks just keep on coming. This was the live premiere of KTL‘s score for Victor Sjöström’s classic Swedish silent horror film, although the music has been available on the DVD of the film for almost two years. I’m tempted to ask why it took Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley so long to put on this show, but given both men’s prodigious work rates and the bewildering variety of projects they’re both engaged in at any one time, it would seem churlish to do so.
In any event this was a deliciously unsettling evening, kicking off at the appropriately late hour of 11.00pm. (By a curious twist, I’d also been at the Gartenbaukino the evening before, watching Lars von Trier’s freakishly compelling Antichrist.) Performing in the wide open space of Vienna’s largest cinema, Rehberg and O’Malley stationed themselves on opposite sides of the screen and proceeded to create a soundtrack of nightmarish proportions that twisted and shuddered perfectly in tandem with the expressionist anguish of the film. From time to time O’Malley would violently strum or pluck his guitar strings, producing harsh metallic tones which were then heavily treated. Rehberg, meanwhile, spat vicious and deadly drones from his computer, adding to the sense of emotional turbulence that pervaded the whole film.
The film itself didn’t really grab me very much, I have to admit. I found it very difficult to follow the plot, given the heavy use of flashbacks and the rather confused sense of narrative. I guess I need to watch it again, to which end the above-mentioned DVD would be a very desirable purchase, or even an ideal Christmas present, if anyone else is reading this.
Even though I write a blog, I still think print publications are special and important. Which brings me to the just published 2010 issue of Ed Pinsent’s wonderful Sound Projector magazine, a treasure trove of information and opinion on musical weirdness of all kinds. Packed within its 180 densely written pages are interviews with Z’ev, Scott Ryser/The Units and C Joynes, plus dozens of wild and exciting album reviews. This time round I’ve contributed reviews of records by Josephine Foster, Nancy Wallace, Felicia Atkinson, Benjamin Wetherill, Hollowbody, Tom James Scott, Music For One and Ruby Ruby Ruby.
The full details, including a list of every artist reviewed, are here. And you can buy it here.
There are some wonderful concerts coming up over the next few months, none more so than the one this column is about – a unique occasion, the first ever appearance in central Europe by the American singer and musician Jandek. In case you’re wondering “who?”, let me tell you his fascinating story. Over the past 30 years, Jandek has released about 50 albums of strange, unearthly folk/rock/blues music. The albums come from a PO Box in Houston, Texas, and are never accompanied by any kind of biographical information. In all that time, Jandek has never given a single interview or made any kind of public statement. Until 2004, he had also never played any concerts or appeared in public. In that year, he surprised quite a few people by playing a short, unannounced set at a festival in Scotland, and since then he has evidently caught the touring bug, having played about 40 shows mostly in the US and UK.
Those 50 albums, taken together, represent a serious and intriguing body of work. At first listen, the music is alien and offputting. Jandek sings in a raw, pleading voice, and his guitar playing sounds untutored, as though he has only recently picked up the instrument. The lyrics are rambling, free-associative and often disturbing (sample lines: “I got my knife/If you want to breathe, baby/Don’t paint your teeth”). On some albums, Jandek plays harmonica and piano; other players include a female vocalist, a second guitarist and a drummer, all of whom are similarly untutored and, needless to say, unnamed. Others just consist of Jandek’s voice. The music sounds like it’s been recorded in a room at home, not in a studio. It has been aptly described as “sounding like the music found on an unlabelled tape left in a deserted house.”
The covers of the albums are an important part of the Jandek mythology and tell their own, fractured story. Many of them look like carelessly taken snapshots. Some of them show Jandek at different stages of his life (he’s in his mid-60s now), although until he began playing live, no-one could actually be sure that the man on the covers was the man playing the music. Others show the interior or exterior of houses, presumably where he was living at the time; the curtains in the windows are always tightly drawn.
Every one of Jandek’s shows is different, ranging from solo acoustic guitar to piano recitals and noisy, free-form rock. Sometimes he performs on his own, but more often than not he finds musicians from the city he is performing in and produces a concert of music especially written for each performance. For his Vienna début, he’ll be joined by two of the finest musicians from Vienna’s thriving avant rock/improv scene: Eric Arn of Primordial Undermind on bass and Didi Kern of Fuckhead and Bulbul on drums. The unexpected is to be assumed…