In rock music, the riff is a distillation of the music’s base elements, reducing an already simple form to its crude essence. On one hand, it can be an exciting explosion of emotion [link to suggestive Youtube clip of gushing oil well goes here], but without the desire and the ability to dig any deeper, both the music and the listener can end up trapped in a very cramped and airless space. In this sense, the repeated riff seems to be the antithesis of the complex, ever-shifting and cerebral reputation of free jazz. Yet the riff has its place in improvised music, as even the most cursory acquaintance with the back catalogue of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or even John Coltrane will tell you, never mind tracing some of their roots back to Africa. In this music, the riff can provide a platform for deep exploration. While tethered to this structure, the improviser can reach across to other worlds of sound, while keeping the tension high for the audience. And no-one, it seems, knows this more than The Thing.
Across this two night residency at Café Oto, the Norwegian/Swedish three-piece were joined by a number of special guests. The first night saw them being supported by the English/Japanese trio lll人 (San Nin – which translates, perhaps a little too literally, as Three People). They borrowed something from the sphere of rock too, albeit from its rough outer surfaces: the use of feedback as an intrinsic part of the music. Daichi Yoshikawa deployed a variety of vibrating objects, coils, cans, what have you, on a small snare drum in front of an amp. The noise rose from a tinny buzz to thick metal whine, like sharp shards of guitar from (Oto regular, and special guest on day two) Thurston Moore.
While I’m all for instrumental inventiveness and novel noise, the lll人 setup was intensely problematic. Not only were the sounds overly metallic in timbre, tooth-hurtingly so at times, but the frequency range was very restricted. This was even more of an issue given that alto saxophonist Seymour Wright constantly wanted to share that same small sonic area with Yoshikawa, wriggling in with a series of long, high, squeals. Only the drummer Paul Abbott remained in the free space outside, and the moments where he tempted Wright out of his enclosure to engage in flurries of dialogue provided the set’s few, disappointingly fleeting, highlights.
It didn’t take The Thing long to find their groove. After a frenetic, foot-finding intro, Mats Gustafsson was crouching, swaying back and forth, coiled tighter than one of Yoshikawa’s springs, blasting a two note riff from his baritone sax. Behind him, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten put his double bass down and grinned, while the drummer Paal Nilsen-Love just listened, nodded, and adjusted some of his cymbals. They left him toying with this simple figure, stretching it, chewing on it, for what seemed like several minutes, before Håker Flaten picked up an electric bass.
I’ve heard the Thing riffing on the rock canon (PJ Harvey, White Stripes) before, but I’ve never actually witnessed them actually going electric, so to speak. Any qualms quickly disappeared as Håker Flaten began to work into the saxophonist’s simple lines, bulking them out with rough-edged metal heft, creating a sort of fuzzy doom-funk. The ever-impressive Nilsen-Love scampered energetically in to the spaces they left, all sharp elbows and acute angles, making the gaps feel as wide as oceans.
From this base, they set out in a number of different directions, hinting at Coltrane’s classic “Olé” at one point, and toying with Ethiopian modes at another, passing riffs around, two notes this time, two bars next. When the bass and sax locked together in a big-armed embrace, we in the crowd whooped and rocked in our seats, driven into trance-like states by the relentless repetition. This was especially true during their second set, in which the alto of guest Martin Küchen (“the best saxophonist in Sweden now that I live in Austria”, quipped Gustafsson) was given license to dance on top. While he made all manner of awkward shapes up front, deftly bending and splitting notes like he was whittling wood, The Thing collected rhythmic material behind him like liquid in a dam, letting it escape in a trickle and then a torrent, finally sweeping him up on their wave-like riffs like a little toy boat. It was a powerful display which drew from a deep well of musical history, and refracted it, as if to say: this is it. This is what matters. This is The Thing.