Fire!: You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago (2009)
Mats Gustafsson and the word "accessible" are rarely found in the same sentence. For over two decades, this Swedish reed player has been mining the extreme end of free improvisation and cued composition with like-minded players including Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and The Thing, his ongoing collective with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago may not exactly be rife for radio play, but its preponderance of potent grooves does temper the more expressionistic tendencies of the Fire! trio, making it a rare, approachable entry point into Gustafsson's generally denser, more jagged landscapes.
Perhaps it's the saxophonist's doubling on Fender Rhodes, as well as Johan Berthling supplementing his double-bass with Hammond organ, electric guitar and electric bass, that makes these four improvisations, ranging from four to eighteen minutes, a little less abstruse. The influence of Soft Machine can be heard in Berthling's Hugh Hopper-like fuzz bass and Gustafsson's heavily overdriven electric piano on "Can I Hold You For a Minute?" But just as that seminal, early-1970s British group ultimately pushed its pop roots over the edge, Fire! comes from the other side, tempering its more angular sonics and cathartic performances and finding middle ground between the two. They find it far left of center to be sure, but still closer to it than is typically heard from Gustafsson.
Still, Soft Machine is but one clear reference point in a set that also includes the relentless riffing of the title track, where two minor-third intervals are alternated by Gustafsson on baritone. Berthling follows the saxophonist, with only drummer Andreas Werlin creating a sense of variation on a four-minute closer that strangely references the raw, germinal blues of Robert Johnson or Leadbelly. Berthling's repetitive bass riff and Werlin's elastic shuffle drive the opening "If I Took Your Hand...," and Gustafsson takes his time to enter with a raging baritone. Contextualized by Berthling, the saxophonist's visceral wails feel somehow grounded and, consequently, easier to grab onto.
But if there's a highlight amongst these improvs, it's the 18-minute "But Sometimes I Am," which also features guest vocalist Mariam Wallentin. Again, a repeated bass figure introduces the piece, but it's darker, sparer than anything else in the set. Werlin's approach is all coloristic cymbal splashes, and it's nearly four minutes before Gustafsson joins inoutré, but more restrained than usual. Most unexpected, then, is eight minutes in, when Werlin shifts to a light pulse that's in no small part referential to Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), just as Berthlin's organ is a clear reference to the late Joe Zawinul's wobbly organ on that classic release. But even that's only a setup for an even more unexpected shift to a harder, backbeat-driven rhythm and some deep interplay between Gustaffson's Rhodes and Berthlin's fuzz bass.
You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago is a fitting addition to Rune Grammofon's distinctively experimental discography. But for a saxophonist like Gustafsson, whose oeuvre is generally more aggressive, Fire! proves he's not averse to a little more accessible exploration, every now and then.
Track Listing: If I Took Your Hand...; But Sometimes I Am; Can I Hold You For a Minute?; You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago.
Personnel: Mats Gustafsson: tenor and baritone saxophones, electronics, Fender Rhodes; Johan Berthling: double-bass, electric guitar, electric bass, Hammond organ; Andreas Werlin: drums, percussion; Mariam Wallentin: vocals (2).