One of the things I occasionally rant about in my more intemperate moments on these pages is the inability of avant rock and noise fans to understand that the qualities they supposedly value in those musics – dissonance, atonality, extremity and so on – are also present in abundant quantities, and far more interestingly, in free jazz, a genre in which they have no interest. How else to explain the fact that there is practically no crossover between the regular audiences at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to these respective musics. What prevents people from making this leap of faith, of course, is the appalling image under which jazz still labours in the rock world. I’ve even heard the nonsensical claim being spouted that The Thing are “the jazz band it’s OK to like”, as though all it takes is a guest appearance from Thurston Moore to save one fortunate group of musicians from the opprobrium deservedly heaped upon their peers.
What did we have at the Blue Tomato last Saturday, then, but a concert by Fire Room, a collaboration between free jazz titans Ken Vandermark on reeds and The Thing drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on the one hand, and noise/turntable maverick Lasse Marhaug on the other. And what do you know? The Tomato is frequently sold out for these big free improv clashes, but on this particular occasion it seemed even more rammed than usual – and was it my imagination, or were there an unusually large number of young hipsters in the audience, no doubt there to see Marhaug? All well and good to get some crossover going, perhaps, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see those same hipsters returning to the Blue Tomato for an improv session that doesn’t involve a lugubrious bloke in a Napalm Death T-shirt sitting at a table, twiddling dials and scowling.
Anyway, this concert was in many ways a more exacting version of the Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo show at the same venue last November. The mighty confidence and exuberance of that evening was still in ample evidence but there was a harder edge to proceedings as well, due in no small part to the lowering presence of Marhaug. Deftly manipulating a turntable, a laptop and some kind of analogue console, Marhaug unleashed wave after wave of sonic detritus which battled for supremacy against Nilssen-Love’s thunderous percussive attack and Vandermark’s wonderfully varied reed work.
Vandermark impressed me hugely on this occasion, I have to say. Writing about the show in his Facebook diary (a fascinating read, by the way, and a fine illustration of how much this tireless traveller thinks and cares about the music; the Musician documentary is highly recommended for the same reason), he expressed the concern that his acoustic playing might have been overwhelmed by the drums and electronics. He needn’t have worried; the endless twists and turns of his sax and clarinet solos came over loud and clear. Whether he launches into a surging, irresistible groove, alights on a moment of stark beauty or unleashes a spectacular passage of circular breathing, Vandermark is surely the most inventive and creative saxophonist in the world today.