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.

Mats Gustafsson/Martin Siewert/dieb13, Vienna Rhiz, 4 April 2011; Frode Gjerstad Trio with Mats Gustafsson, Vienna Blue Tomato, 14 April 2011

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.

Heaven And, Vienna Künstlerhaus, 15 December 2010

My last concert of 2010 neatly tied together a couple of strands from the previous two. Like Tortoise, Heaven And have two drummers; like Broken Heart Collector, one of them is Didi Kern. Kern’s presence in the line-up tonight no doubt came about due to the no-show of regular Heaven And drummer Tony Buck, although it’s unclear to me whether Buck has left the group for good or whether his absence on this occasion was merely temporary. Since a large part of Heaven And’s prior appeal rested on the churning impact of Buck and Steve Heather’s twin percussive attack, restricting themselves to just one sticksman for this concert was clearly not an option.

Heaven And impressed me enormously when I saw them at Nickelsdorf this summer, their pulverizing guitar-and-drums racket providing the Konfrontationen festival with an appropriately confrontational late-night finale. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those dizzying heights, it was only because of the sparse attendance and also because of the bizarre set-up of the performance space. In front of the stage was a standing area and, beyond that, a few rows of raked seating. The audience were always going to gravitate towards those seats, leaving a yawning gap between group and audience which was plugged only by a few stumpy pillars, whose only conceivable function seemed to be to rest drinks upon. Since no-one was standing anyway, they looked rather forlorn.

None of which prevented Heaven And from turning in an utterly convincing performance, with Martin Siewert’s regular and tabletop electric guitars blasting into overdrive against Kern and Heather’s constantly shifting patterns and Zeitblom’s relentless bass groove. And, of course, the group had an ace up their sleeve: a special guest appearance by Swedish (and surely, by now, honorary Viennese) saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. Tearing great strips out of the air with his awesome lung power, Gustafsson matched Siewert all the way for sheer audacity and verve; a rare and precious instance of white-hot rock and world-beating free improvisation, colliding and fusing in their own light and heat.

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vienna Blue Tomato & Martinschlössl, 3-5 November 2010

I nearly fell off my chair when I read the announcement of these dates. On both previous occasions when I’ve seen the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet it’s been at Porgy & Bess, the kind of spacious venue where you might expect this huge free jazz aggregation to play. But the tiny stage of the Blue Tomato, and the local Gasthaus Martinschlössl? Some mistake surely?

There was no mistake, of course. The first two of these nights saw the Tentet perform in various subgroups, while the last night saw the whole shebang come together for the kind of all-out aural assault in which this group specializes. The idea of subgroups made good sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these breakout groups are kind of fundamental to the ways of the Tentet, with their gigs flowing freely between full-on blats and quieter duo/trio sections. And secondly, there was no way that all eleven [sic] members of the Tentet were going to fit on the stage of the Tomato anyway.

Having said that, I did feel that the first night at the Blue Tomato could have got off to a more rip-roaring start. The first group on was the Brass Choir, consisting of Johannes Bauer and Jeb Bishop (both on trombone), Joe McPhee on a little trumpet (a pocket trumpet, apparently) and Per-Åke Holmlander on tuba. This was heavy going, with Bauer throwing his usual self-satisfied poses and a comparative lack of timbral variation adding to the monotony. The set dragged on for much too long, but things perked up soon after when Sonore (Brötzmann’s reeds trio with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson) took to the stage. Of course, lack of timbral variation is something you could equally well accuse Sonore of; but in their case it hardly matters when the music is as deliriously joyful and bouncy as this. McPhee re-emerged on sax to round off the evening, accompanied by the all-guns-blazing cello of Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang’s rippling, surging percussion work.

The second night kicked off with Sonore sans Brötzmann, a wild and lusty duo in which Gustafsson and Vandermark gave full vent to the sheer physicality of their playing. It was dizzying stuff, and there was to be little respite as the great Paal Nilssen-Love sat down behind the kit, on this occasion across the stage from Jeb Bishop. Having developed a dislike for the trombone I didn’t particularly expect to enjoy this set, but Bishop convinced me with his flowing and disciplined approach to the instrument, the antithesis of Bauer’s tiresome flights of self-indulgence. Nilssen-Love, needless to say, was formidable.

I opted to skip the trio of Bauer, Holmlander and Lonberg-Holm in favour of some much-needed fresh air outside, and was able to exchange a few words with Brötzmann, who was also outside, smoking his way through an enormous cigar. Returning indoors, the saxophonist lined up his quartet with McPhee, Zerang and double bass player Kent Kessler, a group that has played together on many occasions but which I had never had the pleasure of catching before. It was a storming finale, the four of them perfectly attuned to each other as only great improvisers can be.

The appearance by the entire Tentet the following night at Martinschlössl was an extraordinary experience, and without a doubt one of my concerts of the year. I had never been to this joint before, and had little idea of what to expect; what I certainly had not banked on was the hall being filled with long wooden tables and the stage being barely big enough to contain the group (indeed, I believe it was specially extended for the occasion). What was even more unbelievable was the capacity audience, many of whom I had never seen before at places like the Blue Tomato or Porgy & Bess. As on so many previous occasions, I marvelled at the way normal people in Vienna – not trendies or hipsters, nor weirdy-beardy jazzers – turn out in their hundreds to listen to this loud, wordless, ecstatic music. There was even a girl of about ten in the audience, who seemed to be having a great time even though she did spend most of the evening with her hands over her ears.

As for the Tentet themselves, the thing that struck me was how badass they are. For all their smiles and outwardly friendly demeanour, these guys are a gang, and once they get onstage they mean business and are not to be f*cked with. Their music is like a juggernaut, destroying everything in its path with its blistering, volcanic energy. They are, as my son is fond of saying, deadly serious, and seriously deadly.

Konfrontationen Festival Day 2, Nickelsdorf, 16 July 2010

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.)

Swedish Azz, Vienna Echoraum, 28 February 2010

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.

Records of 2009

Here’s some kind of list of the 2009 releases that made the most impression on me last year.

1. Peter Hammill, Thin Air
2. Naked Lunch, Universalove
3. The Thing, Bag It
4. Fire,¹ You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago
5. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Chicago Volume/Milwaukee Volume²
6. Full Blast,³ Black Hole
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes
8. Æthenor, Faking Gold and Murder
9. Christina Carter, Seals
10. Alela Diane, To Be Still

Notes

1. Fire is Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.
2. Released as two single CDs, but it’s hard not to think of them as a double.
3. Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

Concerts of 2009

Here’s a list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2009. There’s not much of an order to these ten, except for number 1, which was an incredible evening for me for all sorts of reasons.

1. Jandek, B72, Vienna
2. Spiritualized, Krems, Austria
3. Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Fluc, Vienna
4. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Blue Tomato, Vienna
5. Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Blue Tomato, Vienna
6. Sonore/The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Naked Lunch/Universalove, Gartenbaukino, Vienna
8. Sunn O)))/Pita, Arena, Vienna
9. Bruce Springsteen, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna
10. Kraftwerk, Wiesen, Austria