Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Vienna Blue Tomato, 18 November 2009

The first of two thrilling free jazz gigs at the Blue Tomato in the space of three days. What with these two, and the Sonore/Thing soundclash last month, this unassuming venue in the wilds of the 15th district is at the very top of its game right now. Ken Vandermark says that this place and Alchemia in Krakow are the two best jazz clubs in Europe, and he should know.

Whenever I’ve seen Mats Gustafsson play before, it’s been with Peter Brötzmann – either with Sonore, or as part of the Chicago Tentet. He’s always been a powerful presence, but at the same time he’s occasionally been overshadowed by the ferocity of Brötzmann’s blowing. Last time I saw the Tentet at Porgy & Bess, it seemed to me that the Swedish saxophonist’s prodigious physicality was underused. The solution, naturally, is to give the man his own trio – and that’s precisely what we got at the Blue Tomato this week.

I say that, but of course this was a long way from being The Mats Gustafsson Trio. (Sidenote: with the exception of the Schlippenbach Trio, you just don’t get that highlighting of one person as the leader in the names of free improv groups, which is just as it should be.) Joining Gustafsson were Barry Guy on double bass and Raymond Strid on drums, neither of whom I had seen play live before. Guy, however, was known to me through his work with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton – in fact, Parker/Guy/Lytton’s Live at the Vortex album on Emanem was the first free improv record I ever heard, and for that reason it’s an album I cherish with great affection.

Anyway, the point is that each member of this trio contributed equally to the great firestorm of sound that was kicked up. Strid was a consistently agile and forceful percussionist, as well as being great fun to watch with his varied approach to his cymbals, gongs and whatnot. Guy, meanwhile, was simply breathtaking. I’ve never really “got” the double bass before, it’s always seemed a little bit too trad-jazzy for my liking (Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s assault on the instrument notwithstanding). But I sure as heck “got” it tonight, as Guy proceeded to play the bass in ways I never knew were possible. Switching fluidly between arco and pizzicato, he stuck sticks between the strings, rapidly and expertly travelled his way up and down the length of the neck, and generally flayed hell out of the thing. And he did so with, often, the broadest of smiles on his face. It was sheer joy to behold.

As for Gustafsson, his playing on the saxophone was overwhelming. Whether he’s soloing tenderly and lyrically, producing a range of unusual sounds by tonguing the reed, or delivering a majestically deep and resonant melody, the man is never less than compelling. And the strength of his commitment to live performance couldn’t be clearer. With his face getting redder and redder, the sweat dripping off him and his veins threatening to burst at any time, Gustafsson is a viscerally enthralling performer.

Sonore/The Thing, Vienna Blue Tomato, 15 October 2009

A truly blistering night of free jazz and improvisation from five of its finest exponents. Consisting of a series of combinations of the all-reeds trio Sonore (Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson) and Scandinavian power trio The Thing (Gustafsson plus Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums), the evening showed up the rock and noise crowds’ frequent claims to ‘extremity’ and ‘intensity’ for the empty boasts they are. With no guitars, no electronics and no amplification, these five gentlemen conclusively demonstrated that there is no music in the world more extreme and intense than the cry of a saxophone being flayed from the inside out, and the thunderous rumble of a drummer assaulting his kit into submission.

The concert began with a beautifully balanced set from Sonore, followed straight after by an incandescent duo set from Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love. Next up, Vandermark and Håker Flaten varied the mood and pace considerably. Vandermark showcased his sheer versatility, foregoing his usual Ayleresque attack with a bout of cerebral blowing that reminded me of Anthony Braxton. Håker Flaten remained onstage for The Thing’s set, during which Mats Gustafsson played sax with a jaw-droppingly physical ferocity. The inevitable conclusion saw all five men come together in a breathtaking show of mutual understanding, improvisational flair and deranged sonic attack.