Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 8 March 2014; Chris Corsano & Mette Rasmussen, Vienna Mo.ë, 3 April 2014

Is there any more powerful sound in music than that of the sax/drums duo? Personally, I doubt it. The combination of the expressive blast of the horn and the undulant forms thrown by the drumkit seems to represent free music at its most elemental and dangerous. More than any other configuration, the sax and drums line-up also embodies the idea of improvisation as dialogue that, for me at least, has always been central to improvised music. It’s at times like this that I reach for the writings of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975):

The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself – philosophical, scientific, artistic – is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.1

Over the years I’ve seen a few sax players and drummers squaring up to each other, most often in permutations of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson on the one hand and Paal Nilssen-Love or Didi Kern on the other. Of course, I missed Brötzmann’s gig with the British percussionist Steve Noble at the Blue Tomato this week – his first appearance there for over two years, and I missed his last one as well. But I was able to catch two superlative examples of the genre recently in Vienna.

First up, the long-established Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo, again at the Blue Tomato. Vandermark is another musician whose gigs I keep missing. Can it really have been two years since I last saw him play, with his Resonance Ensemble at Porgy & Bess? This blog would appear to suggest so, but then again there have been many gigs I never got around to reviewing, so who knows. Anyway, Ken and Paal were electrifying on this occasion. Kicking off on tenor, Vandermark alternated zinging melodies with blasts of pure noise while Nilssen-Love wove intricate threads of percussive texture. During the two 45-minute sets, the pair demonstrated the kind of empathy and mutual awareness that can only come from years of playing together, listening to one another and responding to the other’s statements with declarative positions of one’s own. At one point, as Nilssen-Love took a stark, brittle solo, the reedsman reached for his clarinet before seemingly changing his mind and turning instead to the hefty baritone sax. Using the considerable wallop of this instrument to draw the Norwegian into ever more frenzied bursts of activity, Vandermark traced wave after wave of hook-laden melodic invention. Turning to the clarinet for a long, bracing passage of circular breathing, the American showed that his ability to scramble the conscious mind remains as sure and true as ever.

A month or so later it was time to check out the first appearance in Vienna by the brilliant US free drummer Chris Corsano, here in the company of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen. It was a pleasure to watch this new duo play in the unusual and intimate environs of Mo.ë, a room which doubles as concert venue and exhibition space and as a result has a uniquely informal vibe to it. With the musicians setting up in the centre of the room and the audience able to wander around at will, the gig had the air of a friendly, spontaneous happening.

Mette Rasmussen has a remarkably fluid and expressive tone on the alto saxophone. Her playing at times evokes the rich, heavenward clarity of Albert Ayler, at others the throaty roar of Mats Gustafsson. Equally, though, she’s able to sidestep these influences and assert her own individual sound in piercingly high tones and controlled outbursts of free playing. Corsano, meanwhile, keeps up his end of the conversation in gripping manner, utilizing a wide range of extended techniques (bowing the edge of the drum, microscopic percussive incidents, blowing on some kind of customized reed instrument) but always returning to that infinite melting pulse. It was an engrossing encounter from a duo that seems destined for great things.

Note

1. I was introduced to Bakhtin by my English tutor at Sussex, the late Frank Gloversmith, to whom I owe an enormous personal debt.

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.

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Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 12 March 2012

Ken Vandermark as big bandleader; here was an element of the workaholic American’s repertoire that I hadn’t previously heard.  Needless to say the saxophonist is no stranger to large ensembles, having for years played a key role in Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet.  And while the Resonance Ensemble has certain formal similarities to that formidable aggregation – many-headed reed and brass sections, bass, twin drummers – it’s also a jazzier, more swinging collective than the Tentet.  Those qualities were much in evidence at a reasonably full, but by no means packed (it being a Monday) Porgy & Bess, still my favourite live music venue in Vienna.  The opening 30-minute section was a kaleidoscopic swirl of moods, kicking off with a long, devastating tenor solo from centre-stage sax man Dave Rempis.  As the piece wore on, it morphed into a graceful and flowing ensemble piece in which each musician was given a chance to shine.

Having experienced Vandermark mostly in full-on improv mode alongside the likes of Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson and Paal Nilssen-Love, it was salutary to see him work in a more composed environment.  Every so often he would give signals to the rest of the ensemble, presumably to communicate some desired course of action, while the music stands dotted around the stage carried the implication that the music was at least partly prepared in advance.  Whatever the extent of composition, though, the music was never less than fresh and immediately appealing.

The second set saw the group leap headfirst into its most positively enjoyable territory, and this was the part of the evening that seemed to bear Vandermark’s imprint most strongly.  There’s no finer sound in jazz than when he crashes into a delirious, overdriven melody and tussles with it into oblivion, and when that sound is reinforced by nine other gifted musicians, responding to his lead with their own joyous contributions, the results are simply overwhelming.

Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 24 October 2011

Another enthralling evening of free jazz and improv from two masters of the art. As with the last time I saw this duo two years ago, the concert showed how the sheer unpredictability and daredevilry of improvised music can translate, when handled with such intensity, into aesthetic realms of beauty and passion. For I can find no other way to describe Vandermark’s astonishing reeds work, the way he constantly fired molten riffs and melodies from his tenor sax while Nilssen-Love orchestrated a vast and enveloping presence on the drums.

It wasn’t all out-and-out Fire Music, though. When he turned to the clarinet Vandermark was tender and jazzy, to which the Norwegian responded with gently brushed and hand-played snare work. That wonderful sense of intuition and mutual understanding, the confidence and will to take the music into new and unexpected directions, was what made the concert so thrilling. As was the fact that we, the audience, were able to watch and listen to this unbridled creativity unfold as it happened.

Peter Brötzmann’s Long Story Short (Music Unlimited Festival), Wels, Austria, 5-6 November 2011: Day 4

(Review of day 3 here.)

The fourth and final day of this epic festival began for me with a stroll around Wels city museum. The two elderly ladies working the ticket booth put down their knitting to sell me a ticket; it was that kind of museum. Unsurprisingly, I had the place to myself. Soon afterwards I rolled up at the Stadttheater, where the first concert of the day was to take place. I arrived so early that I was able to wander into the auditorium unchallenged and reserve a seat. It was a good thing I did, too, as later on the theatre staff got wise to this ruse and closed all the doors. Come showtime, there was an almighty crush at the one entrance being used to let people in, as folk jockeyed for places in the queue. Ever the smart alec, I let the eager hordes push in front of me before taking up my previously nabbed favourable position.

Anyway, the curtain-raiser for day 4 was a special concert by the most fearsome big band in music, the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. The saxophonist had lined up four leading Japanese musicians to play a set each with the Tentet at this benefit show in aid of the Fukushima nuclear disaster recovery effort. Each set lasted for thirty minutes, resulting in a two-hour tour de force of music. One of the four, guitarist Otomo Yoshihide, opened the concert with a brief speech about the aid programme in which he revealed that he actually grew up in Fukushima and that his parents still lived there. The Tentet were then joined by Brötzmann regular Toshinori Kondo, who added his astringent blasts of trumpet to the looming clouds formed by the core group. The set began in sombre fashion, with the brass and woodwinds tracing a funereal path in seeming acknowledgement of the tragic events in Japan. As is normal at the group’s concerts, the musicians split off into exploratory sub-groups before reuniting for a full-tilt finale.

The rest of the gig saw koto player Michiyo Yagi, Yoshihide himself and finally saxophonist Akira Sakata take their places alongside the Tentet. Yagi’s arco and pizzicato work was dizzyingly forceful, while the searing guitar improv with which Yoshihide opened his set was far more focused and direct than Keiji Haino’s effort the night before had been. Sakata, a trim little man in a smart waistcoat and an incongruous pair of black trainers, squared off against Brötzmann on alto sax before engaging in an epic soundclash with Mats Gustafsson on baritone sax and the inspired stickwork of Paal Nilssen-Love. At each turn, the Tentet allowed their guests plenty of room to make their presence felt before reaching a euphorically collective conclusion of the kind that only they can summon. A staggering performance by all concerned.

Back at the Alter Schlachthof later that evening, I continued to be much amused by the determination of the hardcore element of the audience. These guys – and they were nearly all guys – displayed astonishing speed and agility in charging to the front when the hall was opened for the evening’s concerts, ensuring that the first few rows were fully occupied within perhaps 30 seconds of the doors being opened. And of course I count myself as one of those fanatics, although I seemed to be the only person around me who was not clutching either a camera or some form of recording device.

The evening’s proceedings got underway with another configuration that was new to me, Brötzmann’s trio with the young American rhythm section of Eric Revis on double bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. I wasn’t overly convinced by this line-up, to tell you the truth. Brötzmann’s tenor was as incandescent as ever, but I had trouble relating it to the bass and drums. Although both Revis and Waits were superbly accomplished musicians, their playing seemed to lack verve and frequently tended towards the gruelling.

Which was not a criticism that could by any stretch be levelled at the next set by a revolving cast of Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark, Massimo Pupillo, Kent Kessler, Hamid Drake and Paal Nilssen-Love. This immensely powerful set was the highpoint of the whole weekend for me, which was hardly surprising considering that the line-up contained two of everything – two saxophonists, two bassists and two drummers. What more could anyone wish for? Kessler was an unscheduled addition to this formidable aggregation, which was no bad thing as it meant that his long established trio with Drake and Vandermark, the unimaginatively named DKV Trio, were able to open the set. Never having caught this trio before, I was as enthralled by Drake’s vital and creative drumming and Kessler’s rock-solid bass as I was by the hyperactive swing of Vandermark’s tenor. This trio was followed by that of Gustafsson, Pupillo and Nilssen-Love, a Wels world premiere and the occasion for some staggeringly berserk bass work from the Italian. For the inevitable climax the two trios combined to produce the sextet to end them all, a breathtaking, overdriven performance by all concerned.

The not-quite finale of this exceptional weekend of music saw Brötzmann make his final appearance of the festival with the Full Blast trio of electric bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller. This choice might have raised a few eyebrows, since the Swiss guys tend not to feature as visibly on the European improv circuit as folk like Vandermark, Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love, perhaps because of the fairly oblique relationship between what they do and free jazz. On the other hand, it should be noted that in recent years the saxophonist has played out with Full Blast more than just about any other group, which makes the decision to end his involvement in Long Story Short in this way not a surprise at all, to me at any rate. I stand by my description in the December issue of The Wire of this group as proposing “some kind of free noise take on speed metal”; it’s never less than engrossing to see Brötzmann’s livid tones cutting through the dark throb of Pliakas’ bass and the endless vistas of Wertmüller’s rapid-fire percussion. A typically non-conformist way to bow out.

Except it wasn’t really the end, since Brötzmann had chosen to give the final say to his guitarist son Caspar, playing a rare concert with his group Massaker. If there seemed to be an implication of passing on the baton about this unexpected piece of programming, it was one that was bolstered by the loudness and aggression with which Caspar brought down the curtain on Long Story Short. Backed by a monstrous bass and drums low end, the guitarist issued virulent sheets of metallic noise that twisted and juddered as though possessed by demons. I’m not sure why he was playing a left-handed guitar upside down in right-handed fashion, but by this point my synapses were so scrambled by Brötzmann fils’s deafening sonic attack that nothing seemed to make sense anymore. A shame that father and son did not appear onstage together, but in any event this was an appropriately disorientating end to the most extraordinary and enjoyable festival I’ve ever attended.

Concerts of 2011

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2011, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In chronological order:

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
2. Frode Gjerstad Trio with Mats Gustafsson, Blue Tomato, Vienna
3. Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Shelter, Vienna
4. Home Service, Half Moon, London
5. The Thing with Ken Vandermark, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. Glen Hansard, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
7. Peterlicker, Waves Festival, Vienna
8. Death In June, Ottakringer Brauerei, Vienna
9. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Stadttheater, Wels
10. Ken Vandermark/Mats Gustafsson/Massimo Pupillo/Kent Kessler/Hamid Drake/Paal Nilssen-Love, Alter Schlachthof, Wels

The Thing with Ken Vandermark, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 26 September 2011

It was an absolute pleasure to see The Thing in the smart surroundings of one of my favourite live music venues in Vienna, Porgy & Bess. An ambitious piece of programming, for sure, and one that resulted in a fair few empty seats, but it was worth it just to see the way this remarkable group took control of the larger and more formal space with just as much fire and gusto as they did when I saw them at the Blue Tomato. As if that weren’t enough, they were joined for the second half by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark, who added his unique swing and pulse to the controlled onslaught wrought by the core trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love.

The Thing present the listener with a delicious conundrum: where does the composed end and the improvised begin? Famously named after a Don Cherry tune, they seem to get a free pass from hipsters by virtue of what a fawning piece in The Quietus recently described as their “affinity with alternative rock”. On the contrary, what makes The Thing so precious and unique is the way they use composed sections as a springboard for wild, unapologetic free jazz.

Case in point: the opening number tonight, an old zydeco tune called “Call The Police” by Stephanie McDee. The original consists largely of an addictive accordion riff repeated ad infinitum. Gustafsson leapt on this riff with glee, transforming it into a juggernaut tenor sax statement while Nilssen-Love fired off intricate polyrhythmic beats and Håker Flaten flayed his double bass alive. Elsewhere in the same song, Gustafsson embarked on an extended circular breathing excursion, something I’d never heard him do before despite having seen him play many times. This utterly transfixing solo was a salutary reminder, as if one were needed, that behind Gustafsson’s high-energy attack there lurks a master of jazz technique.

Vandermark’s arrival after the break was the cue for both the grooviest and saddest of the evening’s moods. Effervescent as ever on tenor, the American’s command of the upper register was complemented perfectly by Gustafsson’s swooping baritone low end. Their ecstatic interplay only subsided when Vandermark turned to the clarinet and traced a slow, desolate duo passage with the momentarily becalmed Håker Flaten. Later, as Gustafsson took up the rarely heard fluteophone, Vandermark too was to deliver an engrossing section of circular breathing. As before, there were infectious riffs and melodies galore during this second half, which coalesced into tempestuous group improvisations. Surging restlessly in and out of songform, The Thing are embarked on a thrilling journey where the only certainty is that nothing can be predicted.

Ken Vandermark/Philipp Wachsmann/Paul Lytton, Vienna Blue Tomato, 17 February 2011

Ken Vandermark is always a delight to watch and listen to, especially in the intimate surroundings of the Blue Tomato. Here he was in a trio I hadn’t heard before (a.k.a. CINC), with violinist Philipp Wachsmann and drummer Paul Lytton. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Lytton play for the first time, thanks to his long association with Evan Parker. As I’ve mentioned before, the Parker/Lytton/Barry Guy Live at the Vortex album on Emanem was my first ever venture into the world of free improvisation, and has been a firm favourite of mine ever since. I still haven’t seen that trio play, though, an omission I very much hope gets rectified someday.

CINC, though, are a very different proposition. While still fully improvised, the music seemed to have more in common with AMM (whose John Tilbury guested with CINC in London recently) than with the kind of pyrotechnics I’ve come to associate with Vandermark in groups such as the all-reeds trio Sonore and his exceptional duo with Paal Nilssen-Love. This music was characterized by quietness, small gestures and a sense of glacial calm occasionally broken by flurries of microscopic activity.

Lytton spent much of the set with his head bowed, locked into the reticence of his interventions, while Wachsmann’s presence on violin was equally modest and inconspicuous. Starting off on clarinet, Vandermark was later to trade his initial unobtrusiveness for a more testing and less rational approach on tenor sax. As is the way with such master improvisers, his partners went every step of the way with him, Wachsmann in particular laying down some beautifully deep and resonant drones reminiscent of Tony Conrad. The set as a whole was a timely reminder that free improvisation can be provisional and exploratory without losing any of its power to captivate.

Concerts of 2010

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…

1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf

Short Cuts 4: FM Einheit, Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Terry Riley, Naked Lunch

The fourth in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of recent concerts I haven’t got the time or the energy to write more about.

FM Einheit, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 5 October 2010

Enjoyable evening of metal-bashing and whatnot from the ex-Einstürzende Neubauten man. Einheit had kitted out the venue with long metal coils suspended from the ceiling, and played them with mallets and hand drills to the accompaniment of backing tapes. He also made the already dusty atmosphere of the Fluc Wanne even murkier by pulverising concrete blocks into rubble. It was all very industrial, but I can’t help feeling that the moment for this kind of thing has come and gone. Neubauten didn’t replace him, after all. Plus, it wasn’t Mufti’s fault but this concert had the most annoying audience member I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, a bloke down the front who insisted on dancing – dancing, I tell you – and shouting incomprehensibly throughout the entire set.

Full Blast, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 18 October 2010

The incomparable Peter Brötzmann returned to Vienna for the first time in a year, this time with his Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas on bass guitar and Michael Wertmüller on drums. The trio was augmented on this occasion by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark on reeds, plus an additional trumpeter and percussionist. Unusually, the first half of this evening was devoted to a composed piece by Wertmüller, who conducted energetically from his drumkit. It was something of a surprise to see music stands onstage at a Brötzmann gig; he didn’t have one himself, of course, but all the others did.

It was “as you were” after the interval, as the sextet launched into a furious, raging improv. Great to see Peter end the set by jumping into the air on the last note, just like Springsteen with his guitar. Except for a blistering duet with Brötzmann in the second half, I felt Vandermark struggled to make his presence felt in this context.

Terry Riley, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 October 2010

A grave disappointment, this. I went along on the basis of Riley’s peerless reputation as a minimalist composer, rightfully gained from his seminal works In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. But on this occasion Riley proposed a series of shortish, dreary piano pieces, with meandering and soporific accompaniment from Talvin Singh on tabla and George Brooks on saxophone. I’m out.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 30 October 2010

This was the first time I’ve seen Naked Lunch do a proper show of their own, rather than play the Universalove soundtrack. It was a superb, engrossing performance. Oliver Welter prowled the stage intently, his haunting voice tracing patterns of love and loss around the emotionally dissonant forces unleashed by the music. There’s a troubling, volatile core to this group; the songs obey many of the rules of alt.rock, yet they contrive to keep the listener off balance with their jagged, restless qualities.

And by the way, am I really the only non-Austrian who thinks Naked Lunch are great? Apart from the growing pile of unread and uncommented-upon reviews on this blog, I’ve never seen a single word written about them in English.