The Thing: Bag It!

In July 2010 I saw the Scandinavian free jazz trio The Thing play at the Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria. Konfrontationen is a relatively unknown but historically rather important festival. Every year since 1980 it has brought some of the world’s biggest names in jazz and improvised music – Anthony Braxton, AMM, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann and many others – to play in the courtyard of the Jazzgalerie, a café-restaurant in this small village close to the border with Hungary.

Nickelsdorf is an interesting place in terms of its psychogeography. In the early years of the festival it was possible to look out across the fields surrounding the village at the endless rolls of barbed wire separating East from West. In 1989 this stretch of border was one of the first to be breached, allowing Hungarian citizens to enter Austria freely and ultimately leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern bloc. And all the while the Konfrontationen festival and other events held year round at the Jazzgalerie continued to spread a message of freedom in and through music.

The night I saw The Thing at Konfrontationen was especially memorable. The core line-up of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, double bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was joined by so many friends and fellow travellers (among them saxophonist Ken Vandermark and guitarist with The Ex, Terrie Hessels) that the group was officially billed as The Thing XL. Sitting pretty at the top of the bill, they didn’t take the stage until 2.00am, but it wasn’t long before large sections of the normally gruff and sedentary jazz audience (including a number of eye-poppingly gorgeous Swedish girls) were dancing with reckless abandon to this wild, infectious music.

The previous year, The Thing had released their ninth album, Bag It! Studio albums are notoriously bad at capturing the essence of what makes improvised music great. But then again, it’s not every studio album that has the good fortune to be recorded by Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. The production on this record is wonderfully bright and involving; from Gustafsson’s sharp intakes of breath to the riotous shouts of elation that pepper the tunes, the sense of a live band playing together in a room is palpable. Complementing the three acoustic instruments, Håker Flaten and Gustafsson contribute live electronics; the credits take pains to point out that Håker Flaten occupies the left channel while Gustafsson takes the right.

While much of Bag It! is improvised in the studio, there is also room for several of the twisted cover versions in which the group specialize. I had not heard of 54 Nude Honeys before, but was delighted to discover that they were an all-female Japanese punk rock group with a penchant for wearing black leather boots and hotpants. The Thing are also clearly fans, since they include a hectic cover of their song “Drop The Gun” on this album, built around an addictive four-bar riff upon which Gustafsson leaps with evident relish. The rhythm section are no slouches, either. Håker Flaten’s bass coils sinuously around the saxophonist’s helter-skelter blowing, while Nilssen-Love blasts his way through the din with extended polyrhythmic crossfire. Just when it seems like the group can go no further, the track takes an unexpected turn, lurching into a livid cauldron of electronic noise. Elsewhere, gleeful versions of tunes by The Ex, Duke Ellington and Albert Ayler demonstrate The Thing’s mastery of both avant rock and jazz idioms.

The ten-minute title track, however, is the album’s definitive statement. Beginning with a quiet, restrained Gustafsson solo, Nilssen-Love slips in with abstract drum patterns that slowly resolve in tandem with Håker Flaten’s deft bass rumblings. As the cries of Gustafsson’s sax become more and more frantic, the ensemble gradually forms into a pulsating orb of focused, material energy – there’s no self-indulgent jamming here, no tedious fusion-based noodling. On this track and indeed throughout the album, it’s blissful to listen to the musicians enjoying such daredevilry, the music’s thrilling inner logic the result of many years’ intuition and understanding. Above all, though, it sounds like The Thing are having enormous fun, and it’s that sense of sheer pleasure and excitement in what they’re doing that makes Bag It! such an irresistible force.

Discographically speaking, the album is quite complicated. The vinyl edition is limited to 500 copies and contains three tracks not on the CD, although one of them is just an alternate take. The CD, on the other hand, comes with a bonus disc containing a 30-minute group improvisation, “Beef Brisket”, which is not on the vinyl LP. Completists and collectors will therefore want both.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 20, 2011)

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