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.

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

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 4, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2010

On the fourth and final day of the festival, I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Evan Parker and Sten Sandell‘s duo concert in the church around the corner from the main festival venue, the Jazzgalerie. There was, of course, standing room only – not, I would imagine, a situation in which the church finds itself most Sundays. The music sounded, well, heavenly, with Parker’s achingly beautiful sax lines arcing gracefully above the imposing swell of the organ.

Opting to skip the following solo performance by Joe McPhee (also in the church), I went instead for a walk along the back road behind the Jazzgalerie, where a number of sound installations had been placed in and around an old farmers’ shed. I was rather taken with Kathrin Stumreich’s Faden #2, which consisted of a bicycle with a long spool of thread and a contact microphone attached. As the bike was ridden, the thread played out – creating a visual record of the journey to go along with the noise produced by the microphone.  And no, I didn’t have a go on it. Even better was Klaus Filip’s Photophon, which required the visitor to don a pair of headphones and walk among an array of lights dangling at head height from the ceiling of the shed. As each light swung in the air it transmitted sounds to the headphones, sounds which varied according to the position of the visitor and the extent of the swinging.

All good fun, of course, but the festival really got down to business later in the day when Peter Brötzmann took the stage to play in his semi-regular quartet line-up with Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Massimo Pupillo (of Zu) on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I had only seen Brötzmann play with this unit once before, but that occasion last year was certainly the best Brötzmann show I’ve ever seen. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those heights, it was only because the Jazzgalerie’s courtyard in daylight couldn’t rival the brutalist architecture of the Fluc Wanne as an appropriate setting for the monstrous slabs of sound proposed by this quartet.

Since the demise of Last Exit, this group – which officially goes by the name Hairy Bones, although I can scarcely bring myself to use this ridiculous moniker – has surely been Brötzmann’s hardest and most far-out configuration. On Sunday night the saxophonist was consistently matched for sonic extremity by Kondo, who subjected his trumpet to all manner of wild treatments and distortions. The resulting tornado of sound was anchored down by the phenomenal power of the rhythm section. Pupillo’s bass was dark and thunderous, while Nilssen-Love astonished as much as ever with the furious inventiveness of his drumming. Sitting with his head at an angle as if listening intently through the storm to learn where the music would go next, the Norwegian extended his claim to be the world’s finest Improv drummer.

Things got taken down a notch or two, as they needed to, with the quintet featuring Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Joëlle Léandre on double bass, Tony Hymas on piano and Hugh Ragin on trumpet. This was a comparatively restrained, even polite conversation, with the liquid fluency of the saxes layered amongst Hymas’ elegant pianistics and Léandre’s darting arco and pizzicato work. Parker seemed to have overestimated the warmth of the summer’s evening and showed up in a T-shirt; with the chill necessitating a blanket draped around his shoulders, he seemed reluctant to make too many dramatic statements. Except for a sustained passage of circular breathing, Mitchell too was somewhat reserved. None of which is intended to detract in any way from the exquisite pace and movement of this music, which embraced silence as a sixth and vital element.

And so to the finale of this most enjoyable festival – a barnstorming performance by Austro-Deutsch-Australian aggregation Heaven And. Despite the presence of a bassist and not one but two drummers, Heaven And remains very much a vehicle for the incendiary playing of Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert, who switched between a regular electric guitar and some kind of tabletop deal with insouciant ease. If the group’s name holds out the promise of something vast and transcendent just around the corner, it’s a promise that was fulfilled by this hugely convincing performance, which meshed Crimsonesque vectors of sound with the fiery interplay of drummers Tony Buck and Steve Heather. It didn’t sound a whole lot like jazz, that’s for sure, but by this stage in the game it hardly mattered. Bravely and confidently lighting out for the territory where noise, rock and Improv meet, Heaven And brought Konfrontationen 2010 to an irresistible and staggering conclusion.

(Review of day 2 here.)

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.)

Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Vienna Blue Tomato, 20 February 2010

One of the things I occasionally rant about in my more intemperate moments on these pages is the inability of avant rock and noise fans to understand that the qualities they supposedly value in those musics – dissonance, atonality, extremity and so on – are also present in abundant quantities, and far more interestingly, in free jazz, a genre in which they have no interest. How else to explain the fact that there is practically no crossover between the regular audiences at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to these respective musics. What prevents people from making this leap of faith, of course, is the appalling image under which jazz still labours in the rock world. I’ve even heard the nonsensical claim being spouted that The Thing are “the jazz band it’s OK to like”, as though all it takes is a guest appearance from Thurston Moore to save one fortunate group of musicians from the opprobrium deservedly heaped upon their peers.

What did we have at the Blue Tomato last Saturday, then, but a concert by Fire Room, a collaboration between free jazz titans Ken Vandermark on reeds and The Thing drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on the one hand, and noise/turntable maverick Lasse Marhaug on the other. And what do you know? The Tomato is frequently sold out for these big free improv clashes, but on this particular occasion it seemed even more rammed than usual – and was it my imagination, or were there an unusually large number of young hipsters in the audience, no doubt there to see Marhaug? All well and good to get some crossover going, perhaps, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see those same hipsters returning to the Blue Tomato for an improv session that doesn’t involve a lugubrious bloke in a Napalm Death T-shirt sitting at a table, twiddling dials and scowling.

Anyway, this concert was in many ways a more exacting version of the Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo show at the same venue last November. The mighty confidence and exuberance of that evening was still in ample evidence but there was a harder edge to proceedings as well, due in no small part to the lowering presence of Marhaug. Deftly manipulating a turntable, a laptop and some kind of analogue console, Marhaug unleashed wave after wave of sonic detritus which battled for supremacy against Nilssen-Love’s thunderous percussive attack and Vandermark’s wonderfully varied reed work.

Vandermark impressed me hugely on this occasion, I have to say. Writing about the show in his Facebook diary (a fascinating read, by the way, and a fine illustration of how much this tireless traveller thinks and cares about the music; the Musician documentary is highly recommended for the same reason), he expressed the concern that his acoustic playing might have been overwhelmed by the drums and electronics. He needn’t have worried; the endless twists and turns of his sax and clarinet solos came over loud and clear. Whether he launches into a surging, irresistible groove, alights on a moment of stark beauty or unleashes a spectacular passage of circular breathing, Vandermark is surely the most inventive and creative saxophonist in the world today.

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

Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 20 November 2009

Another superb and – let’s not forget – entertaining evening of high-powered free jazz from two masters of the art. What with all the vague descriptors of power and intensity I keep reaching for in my fumbling attempts to describe why I love this music so much, it’s easy to forget how hugely enjoyable this stuff is. Watching these guys it’s hard not to break into a broad grin at the sheer audacity and confidence of it all, quite apart from the fact that they are clearly having a great time onstage themselves and that it’s utterly infectious.

Furthermore, there’s a palpable sense of involvement here as well. Bizarre as it may sound, the closest parallel I can think of is with watching your favourite football team, or (to take an example from my recent experience), watching your son take part in his first football tournament. You’re willing them on, urging them (often audibly) to ever greater heights, and when those heights are reached, you celebrate together with them. With very few exceptions (Swans and Godspeed You Black Emperor spring to mind), that kind of delirious communion between performer and audience is something I’ve never come close to experiencing at a rock concert.

Anyway, this evening saw the American saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark squaring up to Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Vandermark’s playing ranged from swinging Ayleresque Fire Music to out-and-out free sections, via quiet lyrical passages and an arsenal of attacks on the reed which produced all manner of way-out clicking sounds. There were exhilarating sections of circular breathing as well, Vandermark proving himself the equal of Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton in his mastery of this most challenging of techniques. Whether on clarinet, tenor or baritone sax (the latter borrowed for the evening from Mats Gustafsson, fact fans), Vandermark’s performance was superbly gripping.

You couldn’t say any less than that about Nilssen-Love, either. Here’s another musician who was clearly having great fun onstage, with huge smiles lighting up his face at the beginning and end of each piece. While playing, though, he’s a study in relentlessness, his shirt getting steadily drenched in sweat as he produces an astonishing battery of percussive rhythms and dramatic textural interventions. Driving the saxophonist on to ever more frenzied bursts of manic inventiveness, Nilssen-Love shot electric sparks from his drumkit with every movement. Together, the two men touched awe-inspiring levels of energy and creativity.