The Thing at Cafe Oto, 9/2/13


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.


The Thing With Jim O’Rourke – Shinjuku Growl / The Thing With Otomo Yoshihide – Shinjuku Crawl


It has been over a decade since The Thing formed, assimilating the combined talents of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and Paal Nilssen-Love. They were named not after the John Carpenter horror film, but instead after a Don Cherry composition of the same name. They made an immediate impact with their self-titled debut album of Don Cherry covers, with the rhythm section of Håker Flaten on bass and Nilssen-Love on drums showing themselves to be one of the tightest units out there, and Gustafsson taking extended saxophone technique and then extending it some more. Eagle-Eye Cherry commented on hearing this early work that it was what his father would have called “organic music”; and The Thing have grown and mutated ever since, taking on new musical forms.

It is this eagerness to change and develop, a reluctance to stand still, that they draw on most heavily from the forward-thinking Cherry. While Cherry sought inspiration from Indian, Asian and Middle-eastern forms, experimenting with percussion and keyboards as well as his more usual trumpet, The Thing looked to make connections between the free jazz of the 60s and 70s and punk and experimental rock. Aside from the likes of Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Frank Lowe, and Albert Ayler, they have covered PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Ex, and have employed Steve Albini to record some of their rawer releases. Gustafsson even featured on electronics (along with Merzbow) on Sonic Youth’s finest release of recent years, SYR8, recorded in 2005.

In parallel to their involvement with Peter Brotzmann’s tentet, The Thing have moved from more composed material to complete free improvisation over the years. As they have pressed on, they have moved into ever more experimental fields, their album tracks becoming longer and more freeform, their intuitive improv chops and technical skills becoming ever more impressive (even when not using electronics, Gustafsson pushes the possibilities of the saxophone beyond all known limits). They have continued to exploit huge dynamic contrasts, from ferocious free blowing to (often overlooked) more subtle and textural interplay. Given their range, both musically and dynamically, and the high-wire skill and connectivity they demonstrate, it takes a special kind of guitarist to stand toe to toe (to toe to toe) with them.

These two newest releases (on their usual home Smalltown Superjazzz) document two such meetings, from successive visits to Japan’s Shinjuku Pit Inn in 2007 and 2008. Here they tapped into some local knowledge, in the form of Tokyo residents Jim O’Rourke and Otomo Yoshihide. Given the use of guitarists, and the date of these recordings, in a sense they represent The Thing in transition: halfway between the rock influences of old and the freedoms of today. But in another sense they feel pivotal, as if these pairings somehow unlocked something, maybe convinced them of the true path to follow. For O’Rourke and Yoshihide are much more than guitarists, both are multi-instrumentalists, improvisers, innovators and collaborators of some regard.

O’Rourke of course is quite the polymath, an artist whose solo career has taken in guitar and modular synth experimentation as well as his Nic Roeg-referencing song-based alt rock. His relationship with Gustafsson goes as far back as the 1990s, when both were based on the Chicago improv scene. Despite this familiarity, Shinjuku Growl begins somewhat tentatively on “If Not Ecstatic, We Replay”. Nilssen-Love can be heard scrambling around with chains and bells, while Håker Flaten’s bass emits huge groans. It takes less than ten minutes, however, for this subtlety to be abandoned, the initially hushed conversation between Gustafsson and O’Rourke developing into a high-pitched and suitably ecstatic screaming session (no replay needed). When the saxophonist finally takes a breather, O’Rourke shreds silver into the tumbling rhythms, long streaks of white light dancing over the rippling surface. In contrast, “I Can’t, My Mouth Is Already Full” is in essence the growl of the album’s title, some incredible split note-cum-moans from Gustafsson being met with pulsing feedback and scraped cymbals. The meatiest cut is “Half A Dog Can’t Even Take A Shit”, in which the quartet get into a staggering, lurching entanglement: the real joy is not what with the bass and drums brilliantly picking out and echoing patterns from the front line.

Otomo Yoshihide’s biography is similar to O’Rourke’s in its bewildering diversity: from improv with Derek Bailey to house music via the rock of his Ground Zero group and the straighter edges of the New Jazz Ensemble. However, the differences quickly become apparent. While Shinjuku Crawl begins in a similar manner to its sister release, it feels less visceral, more cerebral. Whispered bass, breathy sax and faint clicks of percussion are quickly driven up to something faster by Nilsen-Love, like an Olympic cyclist pedalling a fixed gear bike from a standing start. In a sign of what is to come, Yoshihide is, initially at least, content just to add colour, dropping notes into the few remaining empty spaces, before he too eventually dances on the pedals. Yoshihide has always had that duality to his playing: the noise balanced by a more minimal style, and both are demonstrated in this set. On “Uramodo (Thank You Mr Fukuoka)” he is a mere ghost, with only sparse traces of feedback giving away his presence. When he does go into full-on Sharrock mode, as on “Third Attempt” and “Dori Dugout pt1”, it feels like as he comes closer than O’Rourke to matching Gustafsson for technique, as well as just volume. It sounds like he was a more awkward addition to The Thing’s lineup, one which would certainly have challenged them, and one which perhaps even gave them food for thought as to their future musical evolution.

The Thing at The Vortex, 29/11/10

The Thing

During the gap between the first and second pieces that The Thing played tonight, a buzzing with-energy Mats Gustafsson was welcoming us to this first date of the European tour. He called it the “Fuck This, Fuck That” tour, swinging his arm as he said the word “fuck”, his ring catching one of the metal pillars which keep the venue upright. DING. He stopped mid-sentence, and raised an eye-brow. Huh. He hit it again. DING. Interesting. Ten minutes later, while The Thing were in full flight, Paal Nilsen-Love started producing an array of strange sounds from his kit, scraping at cymbals, and banging on rims. Gustafsson thought for a second, before answering him by taking the horn out of his mouth and hitting the pillar again. DING. It raised a chuckle at the time, but I’m using it here in a serious fashion to illustrate just how good The Thing are: no matter how loud, or violent, or freewheeling it can seem at times, there is always a control, a sensitivity, a thoughtfulness. Three great musicians producing, reacting to and mastering a maelstrom of sound. Continue reading