Various Artists – Bridges

bridges3

Bridges have shaped our history for centuries. Where rivers were forded, settlements were built, and trading routes were formed, and those have remained in place to this date. Even where a bridge outlives its useful life, crumbling and derelict, we rebuild them, or supplement them with bigger, parallel crossings. Innovation is in form, far more than location (consider the example of London, where Tower Bridge has remained the most easterly crossing for over 100 years). The rivers between the worlds of field recordings, noise, jazz and electronic music have long since been forded, but there is still space for the forward thinking sonic architect to construct something in a new form. One such person is the Dutch artist Machinefabriek, who has himself straddled these divides via his burgeoning discography in recent years.

Machinefabriek, aka Rutger Zuyderfelt, has co-curated this bridge-themed compilation with visual artist Gerco Hiddink, bringing together eight musicians (four pairings of two) across its four lavishly decorated sides, lovely spinning zoetropes all. Each pairing were given recordings made on location at four different bridges in the Netherlands to which they were to react independently, and the results were then mixed together. They were, if you like, building the same bridge, but from opposite ends, only able to guess at what was going on at the other side, and hoping they would meet in the middle. And with a little luck, some sound creative instinct, and a bit of help in the mixing, they have pulled it off: the constructions are not just stable enough to bear weight, but enjoyable to cross. The musicians recruited into this project have reacted in interesting, different and complementary ways to the source materials.

Not that the recordings always make it easy. It wasn’t quite so tough for Jim Denley (who has played with the likes of John Butcher and Ikue Mori) and Esper Reinerstsen (Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura), their extended saxophone techniques mingling airily with birdsong under the Bergerslagbrook. Likewise for Steven Hess and Erik Carlsson (bass drum and crotales), and Mats Gustafsson and Nate Wooley (saxophone and trumpet), who interact well with the rumbling of cars passing overhead on the Waal and Rhine respectively. However, the bridge does little more than cast shadows across the contributions of percussionists Burkhard Beins and Jon Mueller, it is felt more as a resonance, with cymbals and bells ringing out into the space. Strangely, it is on this track that the bridge’s presence is most keenly felt, as if the musicians themselves (and us, the listeners) are in a dark, echoing chamber under a drawbridge which crosses the Netterden Channel.

Bridges is available from Machinefabriek via Bandcamp.

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Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet at Cafe Oto, 20/4/11

Peter Brotzmann

Ever the contrarian, there were in fact eleven members of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet for their three day residency at Cafe Oto. Eleven. This was more than an attempt to simply be “one louder”: in an interview conducted for the BBC beforehand, tentet member Ken Vandermark was rightly insisting Brötzmann’s reputation as the crazy shrieking sax player was – at least in part – a lazy journalistic invention. There is so much more to him than this; even when paired with Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino at Oto the previous week, the subtler side of his talents was still apparent. What the big band format in fact gives Brötzmann, aside from a financial headache, is sonic possibilities, different formations of musicians, from solos, duos, trios, quartets, right up to and including the full force of all eleven blasting away at once. Over the three days, the formal lineups included, as well as the tentet+1, Joe McPhee’s Survival Unit, a brass quartet, the Sonore saxophone trio, as well as solo sets from tuba player Per Åke Holmlander, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and the bass player Kent Kessler. And that is before we get to the countless combinations which assembled and disassembled organically during the course of the big band sets.

Sonore

Tonight’s warm-up sets – as if we needed warming up in a busy Cafe Oto with temperatures of 25 degrees celsius outside – were to come from Kent Kessler, and the heavyweight Sonore trio of Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann himself. Vandermark, Gustafsson, Brötzmann: does it get any better than this? Their styles complement each other so well: Vandermark the more cerebral and technical, Gustafsson entirely visceral and all extended technique, with Brötzmann’s filling the space in between with his own light and shade, from melodic runs to huge, growling vibrato.

Vandermark and Gustafsson

Unusual textures abounded, from some eastern-sounding clarinet scales from Brötzmann (his instrument sounded like a whole troupe of Moroccan double reed instrumentalists) to notes from Gustafsson which sounded like they were split four ways. But it was their ability to respond to these that made this performance so special, taking them as trio into some really unpredictable spaces. For example, their first piece saw them all converging around some squealing, fluttering high notes, sounding like a whole flock of birds; this was easier for Ken Vandermark on the top end of his clarinet, but how the hell Gustafsson reached those notes on a baritone saxophone is completely beyond me. Later, when Brötzmann and Vandermark meshed two high-pitched sax and clarinet melody lines like two giant, fast-spinning cogs, he counterintuitively came in with the lowest, slowest drones he could find. It ended with all three back on sax, Vandermark and Gustafsson kicking and spitting, before Brötzmann entered with glorious song-like melody which harked back to his hard bop heroes. To answer my earlier question: based on this hugely entertaining set, no, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Kent Kessler

Kent Kessler’s short bass solo was a welcome relief after the dizzying Sonore: from some sombre arco with knuckles dragged down strings, to some light, dancing pizzicato, there was suddenly just so much air and so much room to breathe. If you closed your eyes at times you could have sworn he was playing a violin, so high-pitched and fluid was the sound; while towards the end of the set, all creaks and arco groans, you might have though he was bowing the bow of a centuries-old boat.

Gustafsson and Nilsen Love

And so to the endless permutations of the eleven-man tentet. Over the course of this hour-long performance (an hour which flew by, it has to be said), we heard Peter Brötzmann playing with the two trombonists Johannes Andreas Bauer and Jeb Bishop; Mats Gustafsson playing with the drummers Paal Nilsen-Love and Michael Zerang; Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet in a unit with Nilsen-Love and Fred Lomberg-Holm’s cello; a bass and two trombone trio; a Brötzmann/Nilsen-Love face-off; Lomberg-Holm up against Brötzmann on clarinet; Gustafsson sparring with cello and drums, and solos from Bauer, Vandermark and Brötzmann. So many great bands, all within one large grouping. Brötzmann always led off each piece, setting the initial tone, usually returning towards the end to sum up; but in between Gustafsson had a role in organising and cajoling the brass, conjuring order from a situation designed to encourage the opposite.

Gustafsson and vandermark

Regardless of who was playing, the others were always listening intently – with that many people on stage you had to work hard to find your opening. Just watching Gustafsson when Brötzmann or Vandermark played was a masterclass in the art: eyes closed, gritted teeth chewing on their sound, rocking back and forth to feel the pulse, coiling like a spring before finally spiralling upwards to interject forcefully and idiosyncratically. As he did, even his long-time foil Nilsen-Love (whose polyrhythms sometimes rendered Zerang surplus to requirements, playing like two drummers on his own) was listening, laughing and wincing at what he was hearing from his colleague, as he realised he’d have to respond to it in turn. One short phrase from a long Peter Brötzmann exposition was picked up and echoed seemingly by all at once, like starlings all changing flight path simultaneously. Despite the repeated fragmentation into smaller groups, the unity amongst the eleven was unshakeable, and the residency fittingly ended with the brass and reeds all being pulled together towards the centre of the stage to blast out a song in unison. Let’s hope that sense of harmony persisted when they had to split the takings from the three days into eleven undeservedly underproportioned slivers…

the tentet

There are more photos from the evening here.

Mats Gustafsson, Needs! (Dancing Wayang)

Needs!

Woah, a new solo album from the mighty Mats Gustafsson; surely this will be a loud exhibition of powerful saxophone, the sound of one man squawking his lungs up through his instrument, the sort of record to set alongside solo albums by the likes of his sometime collaborator Peter Brotzmann. Well, no. Not at all. This isn’t a solo record by the Mats Gustafsson who plays with Brotzmann or indeed in his usual band The Thing. So is it a solo record by the Mats Gustafsson who plays live electronics with Sonic Youth? Actually, it isn’t quite that either. Perhaps it is best to think of this, as in fact the label (the consistently excellent Dancing Wayang) does, as a “duo” album: an album by two duelling Gustafssons with the sound made by the saxophonist Mats being slashed at by the electronics of the other Mats until it is disfigured way beyond the point where it could be recognised by Adolphe Sax himself.

So this really isn’t a regular solo sax album. Even when Gustafsson is playing his horn on Needs!, he isn’t doing so in anything approaching a conventional fashion. The source sounds he is more interested in are breath and clicks; he processes these in real time and adds layers of overdubs, moments of extreme quiet meeting moments of abrasive noise. The staccato saxophone pops at the start of the title track are quickly consumed by electronic static, so much so that this begins to sound more like an album that you’d find displayed with the power electronics records in Second Layer, rather than in the jazz racks of Honest Jons, which is in fact where I picked it up from. Serrated, crunchy shards of visceral noise are continuously and vigorously rubbed into your eardrums, if it wasn’t for the gasping for breath (Gustafsson usually, me sometimes) I feel I could be listening to Wolf Eyes at times. The album even teases you with a title like “Ethiopian Swing”, making you think that it might be a piece inspired by his work with The Ex, riffing on one of their Getatchew Mekuria pieces. Of course, it is nothing of the sort, it sounds more like an angry man letting the air out of a balloon whilst trapped inside a huge empty iron tank. The title of “It’s Amore” is similarly misleading, leading you to follow the tiny winding metallic percussive trails that are being used to lure you into the depths of this most fascinating sound world, for Needs! is one of the most dynamic and sonically inventive things I’ve heard this year. God bless Mats Gustafsson. Both of them.

Mats Gustafsson, Phil Wachsmann and Pat Thomas at Cafe Oto, 09/04/10

Mats Gustafsson

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.

Phil Wachsmann

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?