Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mats Gustafsson – a short glimpse at his recording history

(Photo: Cato Lein)
Just prior to the honouring of Mats Gustafsson by the Nordic Council June 1st, I published an interview I did back in 2004 on The Evil City Blog. Here’s a short dive into some of his recordings for those who are not already familiar with his catalogue. I have obviously not heard all his recorded works, but I have tried to expose several aspects of his output from different periods in his recording career.
Here’s a complete discography.

A big shortcoming in this mini disc-story on Gustafsson, is the lack of presence of Ken Vandermark and Peter Brötzmann. Gustafsson has recorded with them on several occasions, most notably in the Chicago Tentet of Brötzmann, and he plays live with both of them regularly. Gustafsson and Paal Nilssen-Love just recently openened a webshop with Brötzmann and Vandermark. On Catalytic Sound you can easily access the recordings of Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love, Vandermark & Brötzmann, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young of free improvisation. 

- The Education of Lars Jerry, 1995/1999, Xeric, LP
- Impropositions 1996/99, Phono Suecia, CD-ROM

These recordings document Gustafsson at an early stage as a solo improviser. The Xeric record, later re-released on Table of Elements in 2003, is recorded by Jim O’Rourke, who Gustafsson has collaborated with on several occasions. The site is The Renaissance Society, a contemporary art museum in Chicago. The record is characterized by the open space, and almost echoing sound of a large exhibition hall. Gustafsson goes through the whole spectrum of methods, from screaming to whispering, from ferocious up-tempo improvisation to static droning. Impropositions is denser and less transparent, recorded at Radiohuset in Stockholm, and comes with an enhanced CD-rom. This record also comes with a 80 page booklet, which include a long essay that connect the music to dance and canvas art, and places the recording nicely in the vein of musical history. Gustafsson uses five different instruments and presents a stunning breadth of techniques and expressions. Impropositions might be one of the most impressing entries in the now vast catalogue of his. Some claim it is a landmark among solo saxophone recordings, but the exploratory feel of both records has followed Gustafsson since.

But who is Lars Jerry?

Hidros One - for nine improvisers, tape and conductor, 1997/1999, Caprice, CD

As an obvious continuation of his interest in visual art and exploration of extra-musical ideas, Gustafsson this time engage in the art of Dane John Olsen. This is about thermodynamics, sublimination and condensation. As John Corbett puts it in the liner notes: ”The beginning of sweat, sweat’s inspiration: Hidros One takes shape as a response to John Olsen’s ’sweat drawings’. Petri dish for these works is the archetypical Scandinavian context of the sauna, the sweatbox, where Olsen dripped his own sweat on charcoal and chalk images and learned that this particular body fluid can function as a very good fixative.” Besides Gustafsson, Barry Guy, Axel Dörner, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Sten Sandell, Raymond Strid, Günter Christmann and Per-Åke Holmlander appear on this ”big band” record, which is more subtle and composed compared to the untamed solo recordings released the same year. Nevertheless, this is worthy of thorough listening, and the abstract music stands good on its own feet, even without the listener connecting with framework of ideas behind it.

Diskaholics Anonymous Trio, 2000/2001, Crazy Wisdom, CD

Again, recorded in a museum. This time in Ystad, Sweden, and released on Gustafsson’s own short lived label Crazy Wisdom. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke are the other two anonymous diskaholics on this record, where the improvisations not surprisingly points in the direction of noise and spaced out rock. This may be the point when Gustafsson started to gain a wider audience, not because he makes artistic compromises, but because of the Warholian Sonic Youth-stamp of approval. This is a dynamic record drenched in electronic effects, and express a more streetwise approach to improvisation as opposed to the high art feeling of the previous mentioned records. Also, this may be a collectors item, as so many of Gustafsson’s recordings. Partly because Universal Sweden owes the publishing rights to the Crazy Wisdom catalogue, and it is not likely that the company will reprint it.

I Love It When You Snore, Mats Gustafsson/Paal Nilssen-Love, 2001/2002, Smalltown Superjazzz

In the beginning of the 00’s Oslo-label Smalltown Supersound released a fine string of impro duo recordings. This might be one of the best, featuring two great and highly versatile players on their respective instruments. This is powerful drum-sax improvisation all the way, recorded at Andra Böcker och Skivor in Stockholm on the weekly impro-fridays the shop held for a number of years. It’s raw, classic and dynamic music in the tradition of Europeans such as Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink. Gustafsson is at this point making a name for himself in Oslo, especially in and around the club Blå, and the jazz festival in Kongsberg. This one is very good.

Nash Kontroll, Your Left Hand Just Exploded, 2004/2005, iDEAL

This is a short-lived trio with Gustafsson’s mentor Dror Feiler and Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug. The music is close to old school noise, a term nicely defined by Marhaug: ”Two adult males with lots of pedals behind a table that trembles, in the tradition of Incapacitants and Pain Jerks”. Well, not always, but sometimes, this music really shakes the guts out of me. One interesting observation at a Nash Kontroll-concert at the all Ears-festival January 2005 was that Gustafsson was slightly out of his element. It was the first time I saw him in concert not dominating the stage. This record is interesting because it represents the outskirt of his musical output and a path he doesn’t return to very often, if ever. A nice crossover gem for noise enthusiasts, maybe a little to harsh for impro-heads. Extreme, and a little confusing, but razor sharp.

The Thing, Now and Forever, Smalltown Superjazzz, 2008

The Thing, Gustafsson’s Norwegian trio with Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass), is closer to the core of Mats Gustafsson’s project than Nash Kontroll ever was. This box set is a nice introduction to the band, as it includes the two first hard to get records of the band, a live DVD-recording with Thurston Moore from Øyafestivalen in Oslo 2005, and Gluttony, an exclusive three piece recording for this box, clocking in at 45 minutes. All in all, The Thing ploughs through covers of PJ Harvey, Don Cherry, James Blood Ulmer, Ornette Coleman, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The White Stripes, Gerry Roslie, Richard Berry, as well as some of their own collective improvisations. Gustafsson explain the ideas behind in this interview. The Thing has played live and recorded consistently since 2000, and is probably the most visible and accessible group for all three musicians.

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