Mats Gustafsson: Needs!, Mats G Plays Albert A

Two very different solo albums from Swedish saxophone improviser Mats Gustafsson, each of them showcasing a particular aspect of his work. Gustafsson is that rare thing, an improviser whose presence has impinged upon a much wider consciousness than that of the tight-knit jazz and improv community. Collaborations with avant rock hotshots like Jim O’Rourke and Thurston Moore have given his name a certain cachet of cool, while – more significantly, in my view – he was recently awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize. He’s best known as a brawny, immensely physical player of the tenor and baritone sax, always clad in a tight T-shirt drenched with sweat, his face reddening and veins fit to burst as he gleefully expands on the musical vocabulary of Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann. Exemplified by his membership of groups like The Thing and the all-reeds trio Sonore, this is for my money his most intense and rewarding mode of activity. But he’s also increasingly fond of live electronics and electro-acoustic improv, something that comes to the fore on Needs!

The record is something of a departure for Gustafsson, since it concentrates not on horn blowing but on using the sax as a pure sound source. Most of the ten tracks consist of bizarre pops and clicks, generated by the performer through tonguing of the reed. The sounds of inhalation and exhalation also feature heavily. As far as I can tell, these acoustic sounds are then subjected to electronic processing and distortion, while pure electronic sounds are also generated. The results are partly mixed in real time and partly – gasp! – overdubbed in the studio, not a technique one would normally associate with a master improviser like Gustafsson.

The problem, unfortunately, is that the sounds produced in this manner are not particularly interesting and do not really bear repeated listening. While I can certainly admire the techniques involved, the album comes across as a dry and bloodless display of such techniques, essentially a novelty record for noiseniks. The one exception is “Forever Strictly Forbidden”, by some distance the most accessible track – a delirious symphony of power electronics, unfettered by the awkward gasps and stutters that permeate the rest of the album. Nice presentation, though; an edition of 500 copies on 180g vinyl in a silkscreened wraparound sleeve,with the first 100 copies including a 3” CDR of additional material from the same session.

It was with some relief that I turned to the excellent Mats G Plays Albert A record. This short, one-sided LP is Mats’ simple, heartfelt tribute to the great American free jazz saxophonist, whose innovations opened up huge new possibilities of how the sax could sound and whose influence is still keenly felt today in the music of Gustafsson, Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark among others.

On the first track “Our Prayer” (composed by Ayler’s brother and sometime collaborator on trumpet, Donald), Gustafsson traces a thick, achingly sad melody on baritone sax, its elegiac tone an acknowledgement of the tragic and mysterious circumstances of Ayler’s death (his body was found floating in New York City’s East River in 1970; to this day it’s unclear whether his death was murder or suicide). It also, perhaps, acknowledges the struggles faced by Donald, who suffered from mental health issues throughout his life. The beautiful overlapping tones and sublime shifts of register in this short piece are overwhelming.

The second track, “Angels/Spirits” (composed by Ayler himself), follows a similarly mournful arc before erupting into a rapturous spasm of overdriven blowing. This should have been a full length album. Edition of 99 copies in plain white sleeve with paste-on photo, plus a further 26 signed and lettered copies. Not surprisingly, sold out.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 20, 2011)

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