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.

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 May 2009

A stunning evening of molten free jazz and way-out Improv from the ever reliable Brötzmann and his largest, most diverse configuration. Over two hour-long sets, the saxophonist led his group down a maze of glorious soloing and bravura ensemble interplay. Never letting up, always reaching for higher and more dangerous territory, these guys took your breath away.

Without any need for prior planning, the ten gifted musicians knew instinctively when to come together and when to step back to let in other members of the troupe. This is the magic of group improvisation – that wonderful blend of intuition, togetherness and respect.

Brötzmann’s co-stars, for me, were his regular collaborators Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson (both on saxes) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The two reedsmen proved themselves the German’s equal with their ferocious blowing; Vandermark took a particularly fiery solo with no-one but Nilssen-Love for company, while Gustafsson’s relentlessly physical approach was perhaps underexposed. As for the Norwegian percussionist himself, his face told a story of formidable effort that was reflected time and again in the awesome power of his playing, including a fierce double-headed drum interlude with the more undulant approach of Michael Zerang.

It wasn’t all plain sailing; I could certainly have done without the irritating presence of trombonist Johannes Bauer, whose entire demeanour radiated smugness and self-satisfaction. But his solo interventions were thankfully brief. Other than that Bauer was part of a brass section that, when it was not tussling spiritedly with the reeds, laid down a slew of brisk and imaginative patterns, bolstered by Fred Lonberg-Holm’s whizzy, effects-heavy cello work.

Now twelve years into its existence, the Chicago Tentet is a group at the height of its powers. Brötzmann may be the nominal bandleader, but there was precious little evidence on Saturday night of him shaping and controlling the music to any great extent. Which is as it should be, of course. In the mysterious, elemental world of free improvisation, meaning and inspiration come not from individuals but from the spaces and the traces between them.

Ether column, March 2009

Not much doubt in my mind about the concert of the month (although work commitments mean that I can’t be there, annoyingly) – an evening of blistering free jazz courtesy of The Thing, aka Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and Swedish bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten. Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that both Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love are frequent collaborators of the titanic German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, Gustafsson in the all-reeds trio Sonore, Nilssen-Love in various group formats. Together with Haker-Flaten they walk the precipice between free jazz, out-there rock and garage punk. Gustafsson channels the spirit of Fire Music legend Albert Ayler in his inspirational sax playing, while Nilssen-Love attacks his kit with savage ferocity and the bassist anchors the whole edifice with his rock-solid pizzicato work. Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Blue Tomato, The Thing will surely blast the roof off the place.

If The Thing represent modern European free jazz at its most extreme, saxophonist Paul Dunmall is an example of the kind of dedicated, unsung musician thrown up by the British free improvisation movement. Where Brötzmann and his ilk picked up the sound of American free jazz and took it even further out, Dunmall was part of a British scene that went in the other direction, towards abstraction and relative quiet. Best known for his membership of Mujician, a quartet led by the formidable English pianist Keith Tippett, Dunmall appears in Vienna with a trio that is effectively Mujician without Tippett, i.e. accompanied by Paul Rogers on bass and Tony Levin on drums.

Intriguing evening in prospect – at least for those with good German, which counts me out – at the WUK this month, as Einstürzende Neubauten mainman Blixa Bargeld reads from his new book Europa Kreuzweise: Eine Litanei.  As an attempt to answer the question “what does it mean, to be on a non-stop concert tour for two months?”, the book describes the monotony of movement, interrupted by restaurants, readings and meetings. As I noted in my preview of Neubauten’s last Vienna appearance in April 2008, Bargeld is a lyricist of great skill and acuity, his texts replete with tumbling wordplay and caustic imagery. Between Neubauten activity in recent years, he has given solo vocal performances under the title Rede/Speech, in which he treats his voice with a variety of foot pedals and effects equipment. Expect this not to be a standard book reading.

Peter Brötzmann/Mats Gustafsson/Ken Vandermark, Fluc Wanne, Vienna, 2 December 2008

Just another evening of great intensity from Sonore, following on from the last time I saw them in the summer. Entertainingly, the gig took place in the blasted post-holocaust surroundings of the Fluc Wanne, not a place where beardy jazz fans are often seen. I know Einstürzende Neubauten played some early gigs under an autobahn, but is there any other venue in the world that sits in a former pedestrian subway?

Funnily enough it was Mats Gustafsson who emerged as the star of this particular show, for me at least. I loved the way he wrestled with his outsize reed instruments, looking as though he was fighting to bring them under control. His resonant low-end horns provided some vestige of a rhythmic structure to these short, hard-hitting pieces, around which Brötzmann and Vandermark improvised forcefully.

Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Mats Gustafsson, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2008

On this, my third summer in Austria, I finally made it to Nickelsdorf for the Konfrontationen festival of free jazz and improvised music. This is a very special event — an intimate, three-day open-air festival that takes place in a restaurant/jazz club in an unassuming Austrian village close to the border with Hungary. What makes it even more remarkable is the calibre of the artists the festival attracts. Any event that can count Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, AMM and Peter Brötzmann among its past guests has to have something special going for it.

There was, however, some doubt as to whether this year’s festival would be able to go ahead, due in large part to owner Hans Falb’s financial difficulties. The main problem seems to have been that the Austrian performance rights organisation sued Falb for a large amount of unpaid performance royalties. There was a lot of talk on Friday about “resistance”, as though the very fact that the festival was taking place this year at all was an act of defiance against the authorities. Well, sadly taxes and duties are a fact of life, and if it is true that the festival’s precarious financial situation is the result of non-payment thereof, Falb can in reality have few grounds for complaint.

In any case, last Friday’s opening night of the festival was extremely enjoyable. Blessed by a warm summer’s evening, the covered courtyard attracted a large and enthusiastic audience — far larger than I had expected, and certainly way in excess of the numbers that would turn out for an event of comparable stature in England. My wallet took a hammering at the excellent record stalls; these guys seemed to have more free jazz and improv CDs for sale than I had ever seen in one place before.

It was a long evening, with four groups all performing full-length sets and extended pauses between the acts, but for once this unhurried approach to scheduling didn’t bother me; it contributed to the overall atmosphere of relaxed informality. Having said that, the first act, all-female Norwegian improv quartet Spunk, entirely failed to hold my interest with a rather aimless set. Things soon looked up, though, with an engrossing performance by the trio of Joëlle Léandre on double bass and voice, Elisabeth Harnik on piano and Erik M on the turntables. I could have done without Léandre’s extended vocal techniques, but other than that the set was gripping, with Harnik’s gorgeously loose and freewheeling piano threading around Erik M’s static-heavy turntable interventions. The third group of the evening, the eight-strong Roscoe Mitchell band, made a glorious racket and on any other night would have made worthy headliners.

It will hardly come as a surprise that my main reason for attending Konfrontationen this year was to see Peter Brötzmann, this time in Sonore, his all-reeds trio with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson. I caught this trio at the Blue Tomato last November, and it’s safe to say they haven’t gone rockabilly or anything in the meantime. With no rhythm section to anchor it down, the music veered off in all sorts of wild and utterly unexpected directions. Gustafsson’s low-end blats provided a fine foil for Vandermark’s pulsating lines and Brötzmann’s firestorm blowing. Towards the end all three men were playing tenor saxes simultaneously, a beautifully symmetrical model of alliance and understanding.