The Thing, Vienna Chelsea, 1 May 2014

It looks like those in Vienna who want to see The Thing in a jazz club will have to look further afield from now on. Following last November’s gig at the Blue Tomato for which the seats were removed, this time Trost Records put them on at the Chelsea, not a venue previously noted for its jazz programming. Once again, the audience was thereby forced to stand. Now I have no objection either to standing gigs – Lord knows I go to enough of them – or to the Chelsea, a venue I have been to many times. But The Thing are not a group who should be playing there. I assume that what’s behind these events is a desire to break down the boundaries between genres and make The Thing more attractive to non-jazz audiences. The problem with this is twofold: first, it robs The Thing’s music of its original impetus and context; and second, it risks alienating the group’s core audience who have been going to see them in jazz clubs for many years.

Despite the inappropriate setting I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see The Thing again, and thus it was that I found myself front centre at the Chelsea on May Day. With the celebrations for International Workers’ Day in full swing, the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love wasted no time in propagating their message of freedom in and through the music. This seemed like a more hardcore Thing than has been heard on recent outings, with Gustafsson’s sax low on tunes and high on the frenzied skronk that makes him the natural heir apparent to Peter Brötzmann. A reading of Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart” was virtually unrecognizable from the slow burning version on The Cherry Thing, while “Red River” from the new album Boot! was a maelstrom of surging energy. Håker Flaten, on double bass throughout rather than the bass guitar he favoured at the Blue Tomato, was on powerful form, sculpting a monster solo from the aftershocks of Gustafsson’s tenor. Nilssen-Love, meanwhile, moved with customary panache, his jaw-dropping polyrhythmic stickwork the perfect foil for the Swede’s colossal riffage.

The well-earned encore, when it came, was something of a disappointment. With the audience’s appreciation still ringing in his ears, Gustafsson turned to the unwieldy bass saxophone and drew the evening to a close with a scrappy, directionless improv. It was the only wrong move of an otherwise spectacular evening. That and the venue.

The Thing, Vienna Blue Tomato, 22 November 2013

As I wrote in my round-up of 2013, these pages are seriously backed up for one reason or another. So over the next few weeks I’m going to try and fill in some of the gaps in what was a very full and exciting conclusion to my year of concert-going, while at the same time documenting what is shaping up to be just as busy a kick-off to 2014.

And where better to start than with another storming performance by The Thing, cementing their unassailable position as the most powerful and creative force in free jazz. With Mats Gustafsson on searing form on saxes, Paal Nilssen-Love the sweeping master of his drumkit and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten laying down run after volatile run on electric bass (no double bass tonight!), the impact was as stunning as the band were loud. Kicking off on baritone before switching to tenor, Gustafsson led the trio through a long, searching improv that gradually resolved itself into the old Don Cherry tune “Golden Heart” (recorded by the band on The Cherry Thing). The song’s smoky abstraction spoke eloquently of The Thing’s position as admirers rather than iconoclasts, working in a tradition they both understand and respect. When the Swede finally turned to the mighty bass sax, his physical connection to the instrument was miraculous. A slow and mournful solo evolved into an electrifying “Call The Police”, a staple at Thing gigs these days but no less welcome for all that, its steamroller riff leading the trio into delirious zones of rhythmic ecstasy.

The set-up of this concert, though, left plenty to be desired. At the insistence of the promoters, Trost Records, the Blue Tomato was transformed into a standing venue. Since The Thing play jazz, the Tomato is a jazz club and jazz clubs have seats, this was a perverse decision, presumably borne of some hipster desire to take The Thing out of a ghetto (jazz) that they don’t actually need to be taken out of. It also had the effect of alienating the Tomato’s core audience of regulars, many of whom were conspicuous by their absence. At some point during the evening, the doors were flung open and no further admission fees were charged. The resulting influx of hipsters rarely (if ever) seen before or since at the Tomato, combined with the low height of the stage, meant that anyone further back than the first few rows could see nothing at all. The sound wasn’t a problem – The Thing have never had any difficulty making themselves heard, to put it mildly – but since a large part of The Thing’s appeal rests on the trio’s immense physical engagement, their impish onstage togetherness and even their matching Ruby’s BBQ T-shirts, it was unfortunate that, for many of the audience, that visual impact was largely lost. Still, this was a massively enjoyable concert by a group at the very height of its powers.

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.

Peter Evans/Agusti Fernandez/Mats Gustafsson, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 16 September 2012

Four days after my last visit to Porgy & Bess for the second evening of the Franz Hautzinger residency, I was back there again – and so, funnily enough, was Mats Gustafsson, this time in a trio with Peter Evans on trumpet and Agusti Fernandez on piano. I’ve never been a huge fan of the trumpet, and having been underwhelmed by the rather queasy sound of Hautzinger I was quite prepared not to like Evans either. But the man was a revelation. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the trumpeter and saxophonist united in a jaw-dropping tour de force of fierce blowing and jumpy, agitated motifs.

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Portrait Franz Hautzinger: What’s This Jazz Today?, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 12 September 2012

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?

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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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Mats Gustafsson: Needs!, Mats G Plays Albert A

Two very different solo albums from Swedish saxophone improviser Mats Gustafsson, each of them showcasing a particular aspect of his work. Gustafsson is that rare thing, an improviser whose presence has impinged upon a much wider consciousness than that of the tight-knit jazz and improv community. Collaborations with avant rock hotshots like Jim O’Rourke and Thurston Moore have given his name a certain cachet of cool, while – more significantly, in my view – he was recently awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize. He’s best known as a brawny, immensely physical player of the tenor and baritone sax, always clad in a tight T-shirt drenched with sweat, his face reddening and veins fit to burst as he gleefully expands on the musical vocabulary of Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann. Exemplified by his membership of groups like The Thing and the all-reeds trio Sonore, this is for my money his most intense and rewarding mode of activity. But he’s also increasingly fond of live electronics and electro-acoustic improv, something that comes to the fore on Needs!

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Fire!: You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago; Fire! with Jim O’Rourke: Unreleased?

Exceptionally fine pair of albums from a genuine Swedish supergroup. Fire! consists of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, multi-instrumentalist Johan Berthling (of Tape) and drummer Andreas Werliin (of Wildbirds & Peacedrums), who together have created a compelling spin on free jazz, noise and psychedelic rock. Gustafsson is the mighty free improv overlord whose sax blasts its way through his work with The Thing, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and many other solo and group outings. As co-owner of the Häpna label, as well as with his group Tape, Berthling has an offbeat pop vision that comes across vividly in his contributions on bass, guitar and Hammond organ. Werliin, meanwhile, is the glue that holds the group together. His drumming is relentless and incredibly propulsive.

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The Thing with Neneh Cherry, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 1 July 2012

I’ve reversed the order in which this collaboration is normally billed, since it’s fairly clear to me, both from the LP The Cherry Thing and from this concert, that what we have here is The Thing with a guest vocalist, not Neneh Cherry with a group. This would have come as a shock to many of the Neneh Cherry fans in the audience at Porgy & Bess, who greatly outnumbered fans of The Thing such as myself on the night and who may have been expecting a nostalgic run-through of her 80s chart successes. What we got instead was an unapologetic performance of bristling free jazz, given a vivid extra dimension by Cherry’s powerful vocals.

Take “Call The Police”, an old zydeco song by Stephanie McDee. In my review of the last time I saw The Thing in Vienna, I noted how saxophonist Mats Gustafsson leapt with glee on this tune’s memorable riff, transforming it from a rickety little phrase into a juggernaut statement of intent. They played the song again tonight with equal relish, only this time Cherry was on hand to lend her effervescent voice to the song’s defiant exhortation to party. All the while, the astonishing rhythm section of Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten drove the music along with extraordinary energy and vitality.

Throughout the concert, Cherry showed an instinctive and formidable understanding of the Thing aesthetic. Channelling the ecstatic wordless vocalising of Linda Sharrock, her cries on the Stooges’ “Dirt” were the perfect complement to Gustafsson’s mighty blowing. Taking the temperature down several notches, Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” smouldered with a longing entirely absent from Alan Vega’s perfunctory reading of the original.

However unfamiliar Neneh Cherry’s audience were with The Thing and free jazz at the outset of this concert, the response was overwhelmingly positive (save for a few delicate souls blocking their ears and one or two uncomprehending shakes of the head). The well earned encores reflected both sides of the Cherry Thing experience – a tender reading of the old ballad “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, then a final frenzied blowout impishly introduced by Gustafsson as “an old Scandinavian jazz standard”. Like many of the tunes the saxophonist plays with Swedish Azz this one may have begun life as a standard, but it certainly didn’t end up sounding like one tonight. And it’s that unique, alchemical force that puts The Thing in the boldest and most exciting territory anywhere in creative music.