Here was a quintessentially Viennese event: a three-night residency at the city’s premier jazz club, dedicated to the formidable improvising trumpeter and card-carrying member of the Reductionist school, Franz Hautzinger. The list of people joining Hautzinger for these gigs read like a who’s who of the Vienna free jazz/avant/improv nexus: Siewert, Gustafsson, Stangl, dieb13, Brandlmayr, Quehenberger (what, no Didi Kern?). Although I was previously unfamiliar with Hautzinger’s work, the presence of the aforementioned Siewert and Gustafsson was more than enough to tempt me out for the second of the three evenings, quixotically billed as What’s This Jazz Today?
In one of the most pitifully attended concerts I’ve ever witnessed in Vienna, last weekend saw a deserted Porgy & Bess play host to the first gig in seven years by electroacoustic improvisation quintet Efzeg. The meagre turnout was probably inevitable, given that it was a hot Sunday night and that this music is not exactly a crowd-puller at the best of times; but it was also unfortunate, since what we had here was a reunion gig (oh, how I do love reunions) by a group containing some of Europe’s leading exponents of the electroacoustic genre.
I missed Efzeg the first time around, of course, which makes their 2012 reformation all the more pertinent. I’ve long admired guitarist Martin Siewert’s work, though, having seen him play both with avant rock unit Heaven And and in a trio with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and turntablist and Efzeg member dieb13 (Dieter Kovacic). Kovacic, meanwhile, turns up in Swedish Azz with Gustafsson, who was a guest at Heaven And’s last Vienna gig. You get the picture.
In marked contrast to those previous, bracing encounters, Efzeg are all about duration, the lengthy accumulation of sonic detail. During the concert, I found myself in an unfamiliar, somewhat disquieting mode of listening. I’m not used to the kind of patient unfolding of sounds that Efzeg present us with; years of close attention to free jazz and improv have conditioned me to enjoy, perhaps even to expect, a succession of thrilling events. Such expectations are clearly not part of the EAI aesthetic. The closest I’ve come would be the few AMM concerts I was lucky enough to see in London in the 1990s, before the deplorable schism that led to founder member Keith Rowe leaving the group. Come to think of it, Rowe’s tabletop style of guitar playing is clearly a direct antecedent of Siewert’s, although Siewert often plays in a more conventional style as well. Anyway, what AMM taught me, and Efzeg reminded me of, was the importance of concentration and close listening as a means of situating oneself within a musical environment.
That makes the whole thing sound like some kind of bloodless sonic experiment; nothing could be further from the truth. Over the course of two longish sets, the group’s four instrumentalists proposed a layered approach in which the saxophone, guitars and turntable each traced their own paths before coalescing into a pulsating and vertiginous wall of sound. The amiable Boris Hauf’s spare, astringent sax was bolstered by the quietly flickering guitar of the studious figure next to him, Burkhard Stangl. On the other side of the stage, Siewert was in abstract tabletop mode for the most part, occasionally exploding into fractured power chords. Next to him, dieb13 was to be seen thoughtfully looking through his records before deciding which one to play next, their soft drones adding layers of snowy interference. Meanwhile, visual artist and fifth member Billy Roisz was using the group’s audio as input for her analogue visual feedback projections. Constantly evolving in response to the shifting textures of the music, Roisz’s bold grids and insectoid patterns provided a hypnotic visual correlative. Taking the music and the visuals together, the overall effect was of a mysterious and unresolved entity stubbornly resisting capture. I sincerely hope the group continues to play live, despite the depressing lack of interest shown in this outing.
In my review of a concert by Fire Room last year, I bemoaned the fact that there is hardly any crossover between the scenes at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to electronic music and free jazz. The observation is no less valid now than it was a year ago. Despite the genial management of Herbie and Günter respectively, and despite the many obvious similarities between these styles of music, it’s rare to see either artists or audience members from one place showing up at the other. So it was a great pleasure to see Mats Gustafsson, who along with people like Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love is by now part of the furniture at the Tomato, turning up for what I believe was his first ever appearance at the Rhiz. The gig cemented an association with Austrian guitarist Martin Siewert that goes back to at least last summer, when Siewert’s Heaven And played the closing set at the Gustafsson-curated Konfrontationen festival, and was bolstered last December when the saxophonist joined Siewert for a frenzied blowout at Heaven And’s gig at the Künstlerhaus.
There’s clearly an affinity between the two, then, and it’s fascinating to hear how Gustafsson responds to the presence of another, very different-sounding, lead instrument as opposed to the rhythmic core of double bass and drums he lines up against in The Thing and other groups. On this occasion the duo were joined by turntable and electronics merchant Dieter Kovačič (dieb13), whose malevolent drone-based activity formed a disquieting accompaniment to the guitar and reeds. It was a short set, only 40 minutes or so, but there was still a vast amount going on here. Gustafsson spent most of the set on the deep, resonant baritone sax, switching occasionally to the rare slide sax. Throwing himself into the performance with his usual relish, Gustafsson made the Rhiz his own, challenged only by the endlessly vital and inventive guitar work of Siewert. The guitarist was, as ever, a joy to watch as he moved fluidly between acoustic, electric and tabletop modes; he peels off sheets of squally, thunderous attack with the deranged instinct of Robert Fripp, but trades Fripp’s frosty demeanour for a wholly persuasive openness and sense of fun.
Just over a week later, Gustafsson was the unannounced surprise guest at a gig at the Blue Tomato by the Frode Gjerstad Trio, an all-Norwegian unit consisting of the eponymous Gjerstad on reeds, Jon Rune Strom on double bass and the ubiquitous Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. The first set consisted of the trio only, and it was a pleasure for me to hear Gjerstad play for the first time. Less cerebral than Vandermark, less visceral than Gustafsson or Brötzmann, the saxophonist eschewed a barnstorming approach in favour of clear, ringing lines on alto and clarinet that allowed the bass and drums plenty of space to work their magic. Nilssen-Love’s complex polyrhythms were as brilliant as ever, while Strom was a constantly forceful presence on the low end.
After the interval Gustafsson took up his tenor and Gjerstad immediately deferred to the guest, who laid waste to the room with a long and devastating solo. Things never really let up from that point on. The two reedsmen’s techniques and registers complemented each other beautifully, with Gjerstad’s light and nimble colourations set off against Gustafsson’s fearsomely powerful mid-range assault. This was my last visit to the Tomato before their well-deserved summer break; I’m sure, though, that there will be plenty more such mesmerizing evenings before 2011 is out.
Konfrontationen is a festival of free jazz and improvised music held every summer in Nickelsdorf, a small village in the Austrian province of Burgenland close to the border with Hungary. To hold any kind of Improv festival in such surroundings must be counted an achievement; to hold one that year after year attracts the world’s biggest names in free jazz bar none brings the endeavour closer to one of heroism. The festival’s organizer, Hans Falb, has weathered the storms of bankruptcy and seen his commitment to the festival vindicated not only by the quality of the artists who come to play there but by audiences numbering in the hundreds – a uniquely European, perhaps even uniquely Austrian phenomenon.
This year Falb curated the festival (which stretched over four days for the first time, another indication of its rude state of health) jointly with Swedish sax maestro Mats Gustafsson, fresh from his wedding in Nickelsdorf a few weeks earlier. Their joint pulling power ensured that the festival line-up read like a virtual who’s who of improvised music. I was only able to make two of the four evenings, but these alone provided a surfeit of riches, beginning on the Friday with the trio of Agusti Fernandez, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paul Lovens. This group proved a bracingly effective curtain-raiser, with Fernandez’ glacial Schlippenbachian piano cascading around Håker Flaten’s flaying bass runs and Lovens’ ever forceful percussion. Flowing effortlessly from hypnotically quiet passages to full-on kit-driven assaults, the trio were never less than engrossing.
Much the same could be said of Swedish Azz, Gustafsson’s homage to Swedish jazz of the 1950s and 1960s. This unit seem to have hardened up their act somewhat since the last time I saw them in Vienna, with Gustafsson and Dieter Kovacic in particular ramping up the electronic and noise elements of the group’s sound. Those still labouring under the misapprehension that Improv is po-faced and humourless could have done worse than to lend an ear to the last piece, introduced by Gustafsson as “an old Christmas song” and which saw the vestiges of the song in question being laid to waste by the two men’s scouring blasts of noise. More entertainingly still, Per-Åke Holmlander’s calm four-note tuba motif proved itself equal to this tempest and was more or less the only thing left standing by the song’s end.
Without doubt the highlight of the evening, though, was a devastating set by an extended line-up of The Thing, with the standard trio of Gustafsson, Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love augmented for the occasion by Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Terrie Hessels (of The Ex) and Johannes Bauer. It was truly awe-inspiring to watch this septet take the stage at 2.00am and play as if their lives depended upon it to a large audience that stayed rapt on their every note.
Given the size and line-up of the ensemble, it came as no surprise that The Thing XL (as they were billed) approached the ecstatic fervour of the sadly absent Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet. The German, arguably the godfather of this whole scene, was to have his chance to shine two nights later; in the meantime, his gifted protêgés and collaborators made their own presence felt with their hugely exuberant big band sound. Live as on record (check out 2009’s Bag It! for the definitive Thing studio document), The Thing consistently astonish with the euphoria of their swing and their groove. You want to see gorgeous Swedish girls dancing the night away at a free jazz gig? You’ve got it, courtesy of The Thing and Konfrontationen 2010.
(Review of day 4 here.)
Fascinating and highly unusual evening of not-quite-free jazz from ace Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, three of his fellow countrymen and Viennese ringer dieb13 (Dieter Kovacic). The deal here is a contemporary take on Swedish jazz of the 50s and 60s, transplanting that music’s strong melodic lines and sense of lyricism into the context of improvisation and electronic soundscaping. It could have ended up as a right old mess, but in the event it was a thoroughly convincing performance, due in no small part to the exhilarating urgency of Gustafsson’s saxophone work.
In marked contrast to the long, sweeping improvs we normally see from Gustafsson, these pieces were short, tightly focused and – at least in part – notated. The saxophonist took the trouble to introduce each piece, carefully and humorously introducing the composer and his place in the history of Swedish jazz. It was clear that the group love this music and were there, more than anything else, to pay homage to it.
Judging by the intentness with which Gustafsson, tuba player Per-Åke Holmlander and vibraphone player Kjell Nordeson were studying their music stands, the notated elements were important to the overall structure of each piece. As a result, the pieces tended to begin steadily, with the warm tones of the vibraphone bringing colour and light into the room. It wasn’t ever long, though, before the group ceased to rely on their sheet music and ventured into the realm of pure improvisation, with Gustafsson’s sax playing as wild and torrential as it is in The Thing and Sonore. Taking the occasional break from this vein-bursting activity, he manipulated various bits of table-top electronics to produce clouds of unforgiving noise. Kovacic’s own interventions on turntable and electronics unfolded slowly and unnervingly, while Nordeson’s vibraphone weaved miraculous patterns around this stormy weather.
I still don’t get the point of that missing J, though.