Mats Gustafsson: Share The Moment
AAJ: Your collaboration with Barry Guy, Metal! (No Business Records, 2012) sounds as if it really changed the dynamic in the trio-is that what you were looking for?
MG: That's the whole point of having a guest, I think: that you will not be really sure of what will happen. When it happens you understand it, hopefully. Or you don't understand it. It's all about the meeting, not about having preplanned judgments or preplanned maps, or about how things should work. Because then you are shooting for something, a specific result, and my experience is that then the magic is not there. The real interaction, the real passion is gone. So, in a way, that's what we ask our guests to do, to just come in to play, to put their personality and their imprint on the music. Then we have something hopefully new and fresh, something that adds to what we do. I think that's the kind of guests that we need and we want, and that's people that can change the dynamic of the group and change our perspectives in different ways. That's why we have worked with Joe McPhee for so many years, because we never know what he will do. We have worked with him now for 11 years already, and it is always a surprise with him onstage-and you never, never know. That's what I like; his passion for the music and his unpredictability is amazing.
AAJ: So even night after night it is always different?
MG: Yeah, I would say. It sounds like a cliché, but that's how we feel and that's how the music works. Now. the project with Neneh is slightly different from the other collaborations in that it involves actual songs, so that means that we might even make a set list, but with the trio with Joe, or Thurston [Moore] or Brötzmann, or whoever, we improvise. And if a piece comes up, then a piece comes up. That was the same with Barry too. We deal with it, even if our guest doesn't know it, and someone starts the fragment of a melody or a riff, then the others join or not. I love this way of making music. But with Neneh as we are dealing with more song-based material, at least in the beginning, we will play songs and structures, and just try to extend the structures and see how much we can fuck things up. Then, perhaps in the long run, we can also work with Neneh in this way, because she is so open about trying some stuff out, and she is extremely musical and a great improviser as well. That, in a way, is a goal we have with all our guests, to play free but still to play material if something shows up.
The first time I heard this way of playing, I was only 15 and I heard this amazing Swedish piano trio, the Per Henrik Wallin Trio. Completely mind-blowing music. He died ten years ago, but he was one of the true masters of jazz or improvised music, if you ask me. His trio ran for many, many years. The bassist played with [pianist] Bud Powell and [saxophonist] Albert Ayler and everyone, and he had a great drummer. I was mesmerized the first time I heard him, because they played themes of jazz material, but also very advanced original material with really fast and very complex structured and super, super tight. But they had no music on the stands and they didn't even look at each other, and there was no counting. I couldn't understand how they could jump between complete abstract playing and super exact precision. But it was all in the air: someone gives a little hint or a fragment and the others just jump on it. They never had set lists. They just played. For me that's always been the wish to find musicians to work with, but you have to work over a long time, so all the trust and respect and flexibility is there. For me, The Thing is my dream group. It's always been a dream group.
AAJ: That characteristic of tunes appearing out of nowhere defines much of the music I most enjoy. Bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
MG: Yeah, and if you hear [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins, I saw him a couple of years ago in Vancouver, even now I get the feeling that his colleagues on stage have no idea what songs will show up. That's the way it sounds to me, at least. There's just a signal from maestro himself and bang, you're into something, then out, then into something else. I think that is a great way of sharing music or sharing the time together on stage.
AAJ: On Metal!, did your version of Lightning Bolt's "Ride The Sky" come up in that way?
MG: That was an exception from what I was just talking about [laughs].That was the second encore, and just walking on the stage we told Barry we're gonna play a piece, and he said "jolly good." And he had never heard of Lightning Bolt before and he had never heard the piece, but we just did it.
AAJ: It sounded like that, but it was such a great contrast to everything that had come before that it made an excellent conclusion to the record.
MG: Yeah, a proper way to end the evening.
AAJ: That set was released on LP, and there was no editing involved. Did you purposely make sure the pieces would fit on LP sides? How easy is it to have that much self-awareness when playing improvised music?
MG: Well that's not quite how it was. We talked about the fact that it might be coming out on vinyl, so we mentioned that we shouldn't make a 45-minute long run. That was the only thing that was said. There was no clock and no understanding that we should just make 10-minute pieces. It was more that we should avoid the 40-minute bang. Nothing more was decided. Because, if you start to do just really short pieces, then it limits the music. It could be a nice sort of compositional element, but my experience as an improviser, dealing with free improvised music, is that those kind of limitations usually stop the flow of energy. But it was such an amazing evening with Barry. Barry's ears are huge, so it was one of those extremely easy occasions where everything just worked. There was just a flow of things, and it felt like a ten minute concert, but it was a rather long concert.
AAJ: You have had a long and productive relationship with Guy, how did that first come about?
MG: That goes back to a festival I produced, along with my colleague Thomas Millroth of Olof Bright Editions. We produced a festival in Stockholm called Solo '92, inviting solo artists in contemporary music or creative music, or whatever you want to call it. In a way, it was half contemporary music and half improvised music. So [guitarist] Derek [Bailey] was there, Barry was there, [pianist] Marilyn Crispell, a lot of other amazing musicians. [Bassist] Joelle Leandre. I got the possibility to also play, to make a recording with Barry and [drummer] Paul Lovens at the same time, which came out as a record called Mouth Eating Trees and Related Activities (Okka Disk, 1993). Barry has always been a hero of mine, one of the masters of this music. Like with Neneh it clicked from the very beginning. The way he interacts and the way he makes you play better is amazing. He is a super supportive musician, with no ego. It's just about the music. Ever since then we have played a lot, in a trio with Raymond Strid, duos, Barry Guy New Orchestra...yeah, he's one of the masters. I'm extremely grateful that I can still work with him. In a way it was kind of an unlikely pairing with the instrumentation to invite him to join with The Thing, but I'm very happy that we did that because it made us play in a different way as a group. So he really added some very vital and creative ideas to the group.
AAJ: He made the group quieter, to grossly oversimplify, and there was more space than on some other occasions.
MG: Of course, for me it's really hard to analyze what's actually going on, other people can do that, but it put a different perspective on the music. His way of playing, but also his way of thinking in a compositional way is very, very special. For me it is just the way he can shift between super abstract, super high energy, super fast interaction and extreme melodic beauty. I don't know anyone who is so fast, in thought and in practice. And the variety in dynamics is fantastic. I mean no other bassist can roar like he is doing, and be so brutal, even on an acoustic instrument. And at the same time play in such a fragile lyrical way. I found the way he combines those two extremes very unique. And I think that was a real challenge for The Thing to deal with, and a pure joy to play. Sometimes it's hard to listen to yourself when you work with the music afterwards when you are making a master, but it was amazing to listen to the music with Barry.