I noticed that a bit of money has been spent on Cafe Oto recently. Some new speakers have been attached to the roof. And, even more importantly, the brass pipe to the right of the stage which drips water when the venue gets a bit hot and humid (i.e. most nights) has been boxed off. So they must be doing pretty well. This fact is also borne out by the lineups they’ve been able to attract this year, giving multiple night residencies to musicians of the calibre of Matthew Shipp, Peter Brotzmann, the Sun Ra Arkestra and Mats Gustafsson. And what is particularly pleasing about these residencies is the opportunity it affords the artist concerned to try out some different things over the course of their stay. Gustafsson grabbed this with both hands, using the first night of his two night stay at Oto to do something quite different to what I was expecting.
I’ve always associated Gustafsson with the fieriest of music – but then again he does tend to play with some very loud musicians. Whether with The Thing, The Ex, or Sonic Youth, his saxophone rasps and howls as if channelling the spirit of Albert Ayler. But this show was very different. Without drums or double bass (or a pack of guitarists), but with the piano of Pat Thomas and the violin of Phil Wachsmann, he was forced to use his quieter slide saxophone and to deploy a whole other set of extended techniques on baritone saxophone to avoid swamping the sound mix. His duos with Thomas saw the pianist brushing at strings and draping beads on them, whilst Gustafsson deployed tongue slaps and pops, not actually blowing into his instrument, just blowing against it, and the clicks of his fingers hammering at the keys were as audible as anything else. What was particularly impressive about watching this live was seeing just how much effort he put into this. It seemed to take as much – if not more – out of him than the very occasional and brief sections of squally noise he produced. Gustafsson rocked back and forth with eyes closed, with the energy of an overcoiled spring, occasionally dropping to his knees or contorting his body to play with the bell of his instrument against the inside of his leg.
This latter technique was used prominently in the pairing with Wachsmann, Gustafsson dampening and bending notes, making his instrument sound more like a double bass, producing a pulsing framework for the violinist to drape some ragged melody over. This duo performance was the continuation of a twenty year-long dialogue between the two, having first met in London in Derek Bailey’s Company, and they made full use of their many years of musical experimentation. They skilfully brought their first piece to a close with some increasingly quiet and inventive improvisation, with Gustafsson hissing and Wachsmann swiping his bow through the air, finally being joined by the intermittent buzz of an Oto fridge. When all three musicians returned to the stage together, they quickly created huge tension as they listened intently to each other, focusing on timbre; if you’d closed your eyes, sometimes you’d be hard pressed to tell who was producing which sound, there were so many clicks and knocks and scrapes. Gustafsson’s contributions included some extraordinary explosions, half reed and half vocal, releasing the mouthpiece with a shriek of “puuuu-OHHHHH!”, and stamping on Oto’s concrete floor’s so hard it shook. It looked almost undignified at times, but it was impossible to tear your eyes (or ears) from.
I couldn’t make the second night of the residency, which teamed Gustafsson with improvising vocalist Phil Minton and guitarist John Russell. No doubt it was very different. Did anyone see it?