The Thing with Neneh Cherry, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 1 July 2012

I’ve reversed the order in which this collaboration is normally billed, since it’s fairly clear to me, both from the LP The Cherry Thing and from this concert, that what we have here is The Thing with a guest vocalist, not Neneh Cherry with a group. This would have come as a shock to many of the Neneh Cherry fans in the audience at Porgy & Bess, who greatly outnumbered fans of The Thing such as myself on the night and who may have been expecting a nostalgic run-through of her 80s chart successes. What we got instead was an unapologetic performance of bristling free jazz, given a vivid extra dimension by Cherry’s powerful vocals.

Take “Call The Police”, an old zydeco song by Stephanie McDee. In my review of the last time I saw The Thing in Vienna, I noted how saxophonist Mats Gustafsson leapt with glee on this tune’s memorable riff, transforming it from a rickety little phrase into a juggernaut statement of intent. They played the song again tonight with equal relish, only this time Cherry was on hand to lend her effervescent voice to the song’s defiant exhortation to party. All the while, the astonishing rhythm section of Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten drove the music along with extraordinary energy and vitality.

Throughout the concert, Cherry showed an instinctive and formidable understanding of the Thing aesthetic. Channelling the ecstatic wordless vocalising of Linda Sharrock, her cries on the Stooges’ “Dirt” were the perfect complement to Gustafsson’s mighty blowing. Taking the temperature down several notches, Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” smouldered with a longing entirely absent from Alan Vega’s perfunctory reading of the original.

However unfamiliar Neneh Cherry’s audience were with The Thing and free jazz at the outset of this concert, the response was overwhelmingly positive (save for a few delicate souls blocking their ears and one or two uncomprehending shakes of the head). The well earned encores reflected both sides of the Cherry Thing experience – a tender reading of the old ballad “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, then a final frenzied blowout impishly introduced by Gustafsson as “an old Scandinavian jazz standard”. Like many of the tunes the saxophonist plays with Swedish Azz this one may have begun life as a standard, but it certainly didn’t end up sounding like one tonight. And it’s that unique, alchemical force that puts The Thing in the boldest and most exciting territory anywhere in creative music.