Mats Gustafsson: Share The Moment

John Sharpe By

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Reedman Mats Gustafsson resides at the center of a hurricane of activity: relentlessly touring, curating festivals and begetting record labels. He boasts one of most distinctive sounds in free jazz, combining the extremes of scalp prickling howls with adventurous exploration of minimalist tone and timbre. Although he's come a long way since his early days in a punk rock band in Sweden's Lapland, that anarchic energy is never far away, revealed in collaborations with luminaries from both the Old and New Worlds, such as reedmen Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark and Joe McPhee, and guitarists Thurston Moore, Jim O'Rourke and Yoshihide Otomo.

One of the most enduring vehicles for his artistry is The Thing, a trio with Norwegians Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums), first established in 2000 during a series of concerts and a recording in Stockholm. The trio melds the German, British and American traditions of free music into a searing inferno which can miraculously birth songs from the annals of punk, rock or jazz. Originally, its repertoire comprised the music of legendary trumpeter Don Cherry, who spent many of his years living in the Swedish capital, and after which one of his compositions the threesome is named. In 2012, the trio released two very different albums which, between them, encapsulate the band's breadth of expression and provide an illuminating entree to the reedman's world.

Chapter Index

The Cherry Thing

All About Jazz: The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Superjazz, 2012) is a collaboration with vocalist Neneh Cherry, which garnered some rave reviews. It's a neat connection for a band named after a Don Cherry composition to join with Cherry's stepdaughter; how did that come about?

Mats Gustafsson: It was basically because me and Neneh had a mutual friend in Stockholm, where Neneh has had her base for many years. This guy, called Conny Lindstrom, who I ran the Crazy Wisdom label with, he has also been running a couple of clubs in Stockholm presenting creative music from whatever field. Amazing concept. He's never been interested in genre. So he's been presenting extreme Japanese noise as well as Norwegian singer/songwriting, and free improvised music in all forms. He's been a very old friend of Neneh's and is also a record collector. So I hooked up with him very early when I moved down from Lapland to Stockholm and he was working in the record shop. We connected immediately as he was commenting that I was buying Peter Brötzmann records.

It's always been a dream to get me and Neneh together in a project. It's been on the agenda a couple of times with different projects, but it never happened. Neneh got sick one time, [when] we had a recording scheduled. So we had the opportunity to meet in London, and that was after Neneh's husband and producer Cameron heard us live and was somehow impressed by something, I guess. So he set up, with Conny, this opportunity to meet in the studio in London. And we recorded three pieces without any arrangements or anything. We just did it, and it was the same feeling we had when we first played as The Thing in the studio back in 2000. We came together and everything just worked. So we said, "OK, fuck it, we need to do this again." We needed to make a record and then when it was done, we said we needed to make a serious tour with this. It's just one of those things; it needed some time for me and Neneh to find the right situation to work within. The Thing was my main group and so it was very natural.

AAJ: How did you choose the songs on the album?

MG: It's a very democratic group and we always take all the decisions together. We had some discussions, emails back and forth, sending out some stupid suggestions, some serious ones. And then, in the studio, we tried a bunch, and basically the ones we tried are the ones on the record. There are eight songs on the record, and another five that didn't fit that the label will put out as singles-or maybe as a separate LP. It's a really interesting process, bringing in favorite music, whether it comes from the free jazz tradition like the Don Cherry or Ornette [Coleman] piece, or whether it comes from garage rock or The Stooges or the Bristol scene Neneh has been associated with; it doesn't matter. It's what we do with the material. Also, six of the songs on this record are other people's pieces, but it was not intended to look like a cover record. They were just the songs we wanted to try. The next step for this Cherry Thing is to bring in more original compositions for the next album.

AAJ: Did Neneh write the lyrics to Don Cherry's "Golden Heart" and your piece, "Sudden Moment"?

MG: I wrote the lyrics as well. I did some attempts before, but in a way that was an interesting process. I write a lot, I write about music, but to write lyrics to songs like that is a different kind of process [laughs], but I found it very interesting as a challenge, and so I will try again and see if I can make any more sense. Neneh wrote the lyrics to "Golden Heart," and the rest are all songs that actually have lyrics.

AAJ: Ornette Coleman's "What Reason Could I Give" is one of the strongest pieces, and a great set closer. It comes from Science Fiction (CBS, 1972) , a very underrated album.

MG: I think it is a master album, one of his best. I think it is fantastic, but it's somehow overlooked, I think. If you talk about Ornette, there are usually other albums that people talk about first. But it's one of my favorite albums and it's also the album that Neneh puts first. I think she grew up with it, more or less.


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] Joëlle Léandre. 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.
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