Mats Gustafsson & Didi Kern, Vienna Eissalon Joanelli, 20 January 2013

It’s not often that you get the chance to visit one of Vienna’s Eissalons in January, especially a January like this one when the snow is piled high in the streets and the temperature rarely rises above freezing point. Checking out Joanelli for the first time was therefore a welcome distraction from the usual Sunday night doldrums, even though Eissalon turned out to be something of a misnomer in this case, with little if any ice cream on offer.

What we got instead was a pulverizing set by saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Didi Kern, here to celebrate the publication of the latest edition of Philipp Schmickl’s excellent magazine The Oral. By my reckoning this was the first time the two men had squared up to each other onstage, although they appeared together as part of Heaven And back in 2010. Given their respective positions as key members of the avant/improv scene in Vienna and beyond the pairing couldn’t really disappoint, and of course it didn’t, with the brevity of the set (35 minutes or so) being the only letdown.

I’ve seen Gustafsson play multiple times over the past few years, but getting bored or blasé about his output is simply not an option. What’s more, it was a genuine thrill to see him play in a space no bigger than my front room, a setting that trumped even the Blue Tomato for in-your-face immediacy. The reedsman was in gleeful mood from the get-go, letting rip first on tenor and then on baritone sax, with huge thunderous riffs occasionally giving way to an arsenal of mad pops and clicks on the reed.

As for Kern, he kept Gustafsson on his toes (literally at times; the Swede’s nifty footwork is an aspect of his playing that often goes unnoticed) throughout with his ceaselessly inventive percussion. Compared to a regular Gustafsson foil like Thing sticksman Paal Nilssen-Love, Kern’s drumming is both more muscular and more playful, marked by an absurdist streak that can be seen to the max in his work with Bulbul. Whether whistling through his teeth, clattering various bits of paraphernalia on his drumskins or playing some kind of kazoo, Kern jumped into the rare lulls in Gustafsson’s blowing with evident humour. It was never long, though, before the drummer found some powerhouse groove and set about it with frantic urgency, leaving the saxophonist to animate it with the mighty force of his lungs. A staggering début by any standards, this meeting of two gifted musicians playing together for the first time made a compelling case for the enduring value of free improvisation. Let’s hope the two of them join forces once again before too long.

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