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The Thing

The Thing, The Vortex, Dalston, London, 29/11/2010.

by Tim Owen

December 01, 2010


The trio have consolidated, recalibrated, and reinvigorated themselves. They are on ridiculously good form.

The Thing
The Vortex, London

Mats Gustafsson (saxophones) / Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass) / Paal Nilssen-Love (drums).

Why we don’t get more opportunities to see Norwegian powerhouse The Thing in the UK I don’t know. The current tour, which kicked off with this date, sees the trio play England for the first time in over four years (though thankfully not the decade widely announced in the press). I saw them début their “Garage” material in 2005 at Bardens Boudoir, just a stones throw away from The Vortex, on a bill headed by electronica artists Prefuse 73 and Four Tet, and I believe they also played the Scala the following year in a similar package.

The Thing have been evolving their sound since 2005, but now real change is in the air. “We are tired of our old songs”, Mats Gustafsson tells us, “and we hope you are too”. The “Garage” album was dominated by covers - alternative rock hits of the time and garage classics - that bled into firebreathing Br?tzmann-esque free jazz workouts. Subsequent albums “Action Jazz” and “Bag It!” represented a more mature integration of the “Garage” aesthetic while foregrounding the freedom principle. Now The Thing look back to their roots, with new material that nods effectively to earlier recordings such as their self-titled album and “She Knows” (2001), with their tributes to Don Cherry. They are playing jazz again, with a richer vocabulary. They no longer rely on quotation or versioning but create fresh forms from the same rawest-of-raw materials.

The Thing played two lengthy pieces in each of their two sets. Mats Gustafsson implied, in an offhand comment, that the first was called “Fuck This, Fuck That”. At the time I took that to be a joke. The next piece was introduced as “the same again, more or less” (or words to that effect), but subsequent performances were introduced as “Fuck This, Fuck That” parts 3 and 4, so maybe it’s a proper working title after all. Certainly the gig followed a carefully charted course, and did indeed come across a a suite of sorts. It saw the trio initially navigate passage of pugilistic, unfettered improv, then channelling ballad forms and, as the set wore on, coasting on a surge of swing-suffused garage-jazz momentum. The Thing have, it seems, consolidated their various modes of operation, stepping away from the populist garage- and alt-rock revisions with which they successfully expanded their fanbase, and chasing some sort of summation of the past decade.

“Fuck This, Fuck That” (hereafter FT,FT) part 1 was unexpected for its long-form rejection of blunt attack. In place of car ad familiar hooks they delivered, in succession, fierce uninhibited blowing (despite any back-pedalling on the garage aesthetic, Gustafsson remains the Henry Rollins of the saxophone), some tasty textural soloing (splashy rim- and ride-cymbal percussion, the bass bowed in both squeaky high- and smeary low-end registers), and Gustafsson’s first balladic solo on the baritone saxophone (he favoured the big horn over the tenor for much of the night), which he concluded with some animalistic bellowing. The finale had the trio rocking out over a fierce locomotive rhythm.

“FT,FT part 2” began with flutter-tongued sax, woodblock soloing, and bass as percussion; a junkyard improvisation terminated by Gustafsson’s fixation on a particularly low and dirty Cramps-induced sax riff. Somehow they transitioned from this to another ballad passage in the “Cry Me a River” vein. (I didn’t recognise anything the trio played, but certain moments, and the ballad forms in particular, did seem gratifyingly familiar.)

After a brief interval, “FT,FT part 3” quickly settled into a fast, cyclical riff led by Gustafsson. However much of this ?movement’ was to be characterised by exemplary, ferociously concentrated rhythm solos and duos, as Nilssen-Love and Flaten gave a powerhouse demonstration of the time-forged unity that makes them one of the premier rhythm teams of our age. Nilsen-Love founded a brief, memorable groove on an atypically repetitive beat; Flaten made judicious use of feedback and volume adjustment. The powerful, low-tempo riff that followed Gustafsson’s re-entry was the closest the trio came all night to reviving their ?old’ formula. It tailed off into a long down-tempo trio passage and, finally, another ballad phase. The balladeering here was initially emotive, and ultimately hymnal.

“FT,FT part 4” was dominated by an unrelenting repeated riff which climaxed before a lulling passage of remarkably tender baritone. Gustafsson can play this cumbersome instrument with real finesse, exploiting all its registers naturally and disguising the considerable physical effort involved, perhaps better than any other saxophonist I know. And Nilssen-Love followed that by introducing an energising march-time tattoo that drove the set to climax on an exuberant note. When it was over and Gustafsson whooped a half-joking “hallelujah”, I don’t doubt he echoed the thoughts of everyone in the house. A short concluding number was a generous extra that hardly seemed necessary, but did effect a welcome release of accumulated tension.

The Thing have matured. One thing this review probably obfuscates is the extent to which they have put jazz once again at the core of their music. Just when the garage approach might (though it hadn’t yet) start to sound rather tired, the trio have consolidated, recalibrated, and reinvigorated themselves. They are on ridiculously good form.

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