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.

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, 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.

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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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.

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

Peter Brötzmann’s Long Story Short (Music Unlimited Festival), Wels, Austria, 5-6 November 2011: Day 3

Peter Brötzmann has been on tour even more than usual in 2011, this being the year in which he celebrates his 70th birthday. But where did he choose to have the main event, the one that brought together pretty much all of his musical friends and collaborators, the Brötzfest to end all Brötzfests? Not Germany, not Japan and certainly not the UK, but Austria of course. Two years in the planning, Long Story Short was also the 25th Music Unlimited festival, an annual event rivalled only by the Konfrontationen festival in (this is getting embarrassing) Austria in its ability to attract, year after year, the world’s leading names in free jazz and improvised music. I was only able to make two of the festival’s four days, but the riches presented on those days were more than enough to convince one of the epochal, never-to-be-repeated nature of the event. As, indeed, was the staggering fact that the festival was sold out weeks in advance; how often has that happened at a free jazz fest?

Having said all that, I could probably have done without the extended set by Keiji Haino which opened the third full evening of the festival (I unfortunately missed what must have been a corking clash between Mats Gustafsson, dieb13 and Martin Siewert in the afternoon). Haino’s schtick is beginning to grate on me, a feeling planted by the lengthy vocal improv with which he kicked off and confirmed by the even longer instrumental passages which followed. The anguished cries, moans and utterances were those of a man being sick, while the pieces for guitar and analogue devices were intermittently entertaining but dragged on long after the point had been made. Ultimately, I would be more inclined to look favourably upon Haino’s performance if his persona weren’t so wilfully enigmatic and impenetrable, a pose that set him apart from just about every other artist at the festival.

It was something of a relief, therefore, when Peter Brötzmann took the stage for what turned out to be one of the grooviest, most sheerly enjoyable sets I’ve ever heard him play. This was due in no small part to his three co-musicians, all of whom were new to me: bassist Bill Laswell (yes, the man who ruined the sound of Swans on The Burning World), drummer Hamid Drake and guembri player Mokhtar Gania. You could tell this set was going to be unusual right from the moment Brötzmann hauled the bass saxophone onstage, a beast I’ve never heard him play before. Kicking off in duo format with Laswell’s undulant bass lines cascading around the thick resonances of the sax, the pair were shortly joined by Drake, who made an immediate impression with the deep rolling thunder of his percussion. As Brötzmann switched to tenor the exotically voiced Gania entered, and slipped with the rest of the troupe into an extended, irresistible groove. This extraordinary meeting brought into sharp relief one of the most remarkable things about Brötzmann’s recent work: the fact that he is not only a European, not only a member of the Chicago axis, but also, and increasingly, an internationalist.

From a completely new configuration to one of Brötzmann’s regular gigs, the Hairy Bones quartet with Massimo Pupillo, Toshinori Kondo and Paal Nilssen-Love. I’ve said all I have to say about this scorching line-up in previous reviews, so let me just note that this was Peter’s third full show of the day (a feat he was to repeat the following day), that the Alter Schlachthof remained packed even though the group didn’t come onstage until 12.30am, and that Brötzmann was, unusually for him, moved to complain about the onstage sound. It sounded fine to me in row 3, but who’s to say what he was or was not able to hear through his monitors. Isn’t that the sort of thing that’s supposed to be sorted out at soundcheck, though?

(Review of day 4 here.)

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.