Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

March 14, 2013


There's a melodic quality to much of the music that gives it an appeal that extends beyond the usual improv audience.

Colin Stetson & Mats Gustafsson


(Rune Grammofon RCD2136)

Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson is the cover star of the March 2013 edition of Wire Magazine so now seems a good time to take a look at his latest album, an album of saxophone duets recorded live at the 2011 Vancouver Jazz Festival with the Montreal based saxophonist Colin Stetson. 

Gustafsson has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages in various articles written by my former collaborator Tim Owen, a long term Gustafsson fan. Tim now runs his own excellent Dalston Sound music blog and Gustafsson makes regular appearances there too, including a review offering Tim’s perspective on this very album.

The Wire article offers a fascinating insight into Gustafsson’s musical world. An uncompromising improviser he began as a disciple of Peter Brotzmann with whom he has since worked extensively, and also has close ties with the city of Chicago and particularly with another Brotzmann acolyte saxophonist/clarinettist Ken Vandermark. These three powerhouses of the saxophone sometimes play alongside each other as members of Brotzmann’s tentet.

Gustafsson also leads his own groups including free jazz power trio The Thing featuring the rumbling bass lines of Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and the kinetic drumming of Paal Nilssen Love. Gustafsson also likes to associate with pop and rock artists and The Thing recently collaborated with vocalist Neneh Cherry on the successful “Cherry Thing” album, a surprisingly accessible recording that nevertheless sacrifices nothing of The Thing’s trademark intensity. 

Gustafsson is also a member of Fire!with bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin, the latter is also a member of the duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums and of former E.S.T. bassist Dan Berglund’s band Tonbruket. Recent albums have included collaborations with guitarists Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke. There is also Fire! Orchestra, a large improvising ensemble in the manner of Keith Tippett’s Centripede with Gustafsson at its hub. A review of the Orchestra’s latest album “Exit!” can be found at Dalston Sound along with articles relating to Gustafsson’s numerous other collaborations including those with Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Japanese noise artist Merzbow, guitarist John Russell and percussionist Raymond Strid, and Dutch punk jazz improvisers The Ex. Indeed a punk like energy suffuses much of Gustafsson’s work albeit filtered through the prism of an improviser who once worked with the late, great Derek Bailey. 

Colin Stetson was born in Michigan but is now based in Montreal. He specialises on the bass saxophone and has released three improvised solo albums under the series title “New History Warfare” as well as working with the jazz heavyweight that is Anthony Braxton. Stetson has also come to the attention of rock audiences through his membership of Arcade Fire’s touring band and he has also worked with Bon Iver, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson (who guests on the “New History” albums), David Byrne, TV On The Radio, LCD Soundsystem and many more. Stetson’s involvement with rock acts, particularly Arcade Fire and Bon Iver led to “Stones” being reviewed in the March 2013 edition of Mojo magazine, surprisingly they rather liked it although a search on line reveals that many other reviewers didn’t, regarding the collaboration as something of a lost opportunity, not a point of view I’m particularly inclined to go along with.

“Stones” consists of four lengthy improvised pieces, the titles of which are inspired by the writings of the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof (1907-68) who is described by Gustafsson as being “the foundation of modern Swedish poetry”. Gustafsson goes on to say “there is so much music in the way he constructs his work, it is extremely inspiring on all levels”.

It’s fair to say that something of Ekelof’s spirit infuses these recordings which are far from being the free-form skronk fest one might have expected from these two big beasts of the big horns (Stetson concentrates on bass and Gustafsson on baritone). Instead there’s a melodic quality to much of the music that gives it an appeal that extends beyond the usual improv audience.

Album opener “Stones That Rest Heavily” relishes in deep, earthy, throaty sonorities, some of them almost animalistic, yet the overall effect is strangely relaxing and satisfying. The sound of air circulating and vibrating around the tubes of the two huge instruments makes this a true brotherhood of breath. Sometimes the pair spar playfully with each other, at others they coalesce with a genuine sense of purpose. Such is the chemistry between them it’s difficult to credit that this was in fact their first meeting.

“Stones That Can Only Be” begins melodically with the two horns dovetailing and intertwining with a genuine warmth before veering off into a sparky exchange involving much fluttering and slap tonguing as the pair push their instruments to the limit.

“Stones That Need Not” features the duo on their “second instruments” with Gustafsson on tenor and Stetson on alto for a spirited exchange that begins quietly enough but soon escalates into something of a duel with the pair barking belligerently at each other before eventually resolving their differences with a more reflective and lyrical coda.

The closing “Stones That Only Have” is another low end delight full of vocalised sounds and slap tonguing techniques in a vigorous exchange that still retains an overall melodic shape. As Gustafsson explains “Colin is playing songs, and I love that, real songs with great structures and directions. The song quality is still there but he freakin’ rocks in the way he interacts and improvises”. It’s an approach that gives the set shape no matter how far out the duo push themselves in terms of sonics and extended techniques.

“Stones” certainly isn’t for the faint hearted but it’s still a record that many listeners will be able to take something from. The level of interaction is excellent and the playing is terrific with both men displaying an astonishing grasp of technique and extended technique. The fact that the album has been favourably reviewed in a mainstream rock magazine should encourage people to give this frequently astonishing album a go. Who knows, it may even help to introduce some new listeners to the improv fold. Oh and by the way I love the way in which the press release accompanying my promo copy refers to the saxophonists as “hornithologists”, they certainly managed to find something interesting.   


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