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Mats Gustafsson


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This 'entrepreneurial' spirit led Gustafsson outside of Sweden to explore the international improvising community he had known as an avid record collector.
—Mats Gustafsson
When reedman Mats Gustafsson is onstage but not playing, he stands with his legs apart, leaning over slightly. Close-cropped head back, stretching his mouth repeatedly and holding one of his horns almost like an axe, he rocks back and forth. Usually dressed in tight fitting black clothing, when he finally takes his turn to play, he expels forceful peals of notes that sound both tortured and resplendent. In a world of jazz musicians who seem bodily disconnected from the music they play, Gustafsson is the rare player whose physical presence is an extension of the onslaughts coming from his instrument.

This raw approach is no surprise given Gustafsson's initial forays into music. Born in Umeå, Sweden in 1964, his first musical love was the burgeoning punk scene in Sweden. "For me the definite starting point of making music is really the punk rock scene in Umeå, my hometown, on the border of Lapland, says Gustafsson. "I was 14 or 15 and the whole punk scene exploded in Scandinavia and I heard all the best bands up here and everyone started bands and it was completely fantastic and creative. It was just a little later that the young Swede was exposed to jazz in two very different, but not incompatible, ways: "I heard Sonny Rollins live in 1980...and I just died on his saxophone playing so I got a tenor sax and tried to get some sounds out of it. But [I] still kept on playing in some local punk rock groups. ...Then Peter Brötzmann's record Machine Gun completely made me understand the connections between free jazz and the punk rock hardcore music I was interested in at that time. So that got me going into free jazz but still try[ing] to use some elements from punk rock.

Coming from a generation that heard much more rock than jazz, one supplanting the other as "popular music, Gustafsson is representative of musicians who bring many disparate influences to their jazz careers. "It's really interesting, Gustafsson notes. "I think kind of starting with my generation, born in the mid '60s, who really grew up with punk rock and the next generation with [the] straightedge hardcore scene, there's so many musicians, press and audience that really have that background or can see those connections really clear.

He moved from Umeå, where he had only drummer Kjell Nordeson to play with, to Stockholm, not wanting to leave Sweden (he is still based there). Though there were some players and thinkers who helped the young musician upon his arrival, notably the conceptual saxophonist Dror Feiler and the record store owner Harald Hult, it became clear quickly that Gustafsson would have to create his own opportunities: "The scene kind of shrunk; it was almost dying...Sweden was really isolated - geographically in Europe it's on the northern outpost. No one was ever traveling by Sweden on the way somewhere. It's like the end of the road. So it was really problematic because a lot of players stopped playing and there was not much happening, so we had to start in a way from scratch...we built up the scene ourselves actually from the mid '80s and then [in] 1990 we had a working scene...

Free improvised music, Gustafsson's main focus, requires a scene like he describes. Without the support of major (or even minor) labels or clubs and often little audience appreciation, musicians are responsible for their own providence. ..."The experience of building up the scene, creating the scene and getting into places like record shops or pubs, making series of improvised music for no money; all that stuff was extremely helpful. I learnt so much from that... he recalls. This "entrepreneurial spirit led Gustafsson outside of Sweden to explore the international improvising community he had known as an avid record collector. Mid Europe—countries like Holland, Germany and England—had been a hotbed of free jazz since the mid '60s. "I hooked up with [Paul] Lovens and Barry Guy and Derek [Bailey] and all those key figures on the improvised music scene, says Gustafsson. "And it was absolutely fantastic. The feel was great at that point. Everything happened so quick; I got in touch with people so fast and everything just exploded.

Though not much has been written about it, these kinds of experiences of an international community have been crucial to free jazz' sustained existence. Gustafsson gives his own take on this idea: "That's the whole thing with improvised music. You need to share stuff with each other and you need to respect each other and trust each other because there is no other way because you can't share the moment on stage if you're not sharing the trust and respect for each other when you're off stage. This concept of sharing also changes the way younger musicians are influenced—the way a player approaches free improvising is more important than learning techniques from someone who plays the same horn. Gustafsson, though he speaks in reverent terms about figures like Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann, feels he gets more from drummers in terms of "phrasing the music and using space and odd deconstructive meters. From his varied musical background, Gustafsson "tried to pick up bits and parts everywhere, no matter where you find it—in nature, in a garage band or a free improvised drummer or saxophonist—and try to take that little thing, that little cell and make it my own and put it into my language, he says. "That has always been my strategy, kind of my idea of using sources of inspiration. To hear something, a sound or a phrase or some sort of attack or something and then to try to play it on any of my horns, to control it and figure out what is the basic cell...to get into the skeleton. And then, when I figure out what the skeleton is, then I can dress the skeleton my way so to speak.

Obviously, Gustafsson has spent much time thinking about his playing. For all the dismissive opinions about free improvisation, it is important to realize that it has been around in some form for almost half a century. That would make Gustafsson part of its third, or even fourth, generation. He describes his responsibility this way: "I see myself definitely as part of a history but it's my f*cking responsibility to make my own music and not to just go in whatever direction people think I will go in or that the history demands I go into... As an improviser, I see my responsibility is that I have to go and look for situations where I'm challenged, where I feel there is a resistance, where I don't feel safe...

The challenge that Gustafsson will bring to New York this month is The Thing, a trio with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. "The Thing, that's the group I have been waiting for my whole life..., Gustafsson exalts. "It's just the perfect mix of personalities... It was just a recording project, the intention was not to form a group. ...The more we played together, talked about music and listened to music, we realized we had the same basic sources of inspiration; Then we just tried to include that music into our music...it's just fantastic.

Recommended Listening:

· Mats Gustafsson/Paul Lovens—Nothing to Read (Blue Tower, 1990)

· FJF—Blow Horn (Okkadisk, 1995)

· Peter Brötzmann—The Chicago Octet/Tentet (Okkadisk, 1997)

· Mats Gustafsson—Windows: The Music of Steve Lacy (Blue Chopsticks, 1999)

· Mats Gustafsson/Ingebrigt Håker Flaten/Paal Nilssen-Love—The Thing (Crazy Wisdom, 2000)

· The Thing—Garage (Smalltown Superjazz, 2004)

Photo Credit

Juan-Carlos Hernández (color)


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