Something Else! Interview: Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson

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Mats Gustafsson is bonkers — and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. When I recently discussed working on a collaboration with him on the history of free jazz the response was something along the lines of “Yeah, fuck yeah, let’s do this!” and this is just one of the reasons we get on.

Mats is enthusiastic about everything free form and I am often surprised at how he manages to maintain his energy levels and enthusiasm. On top of that, he is a superb sax player and can spin from manic free blowing to soft, dulcet tones which grab your emotions in a heartbeat. He plays alone; he plays with others; he records almost constantly and always has projects evolving.

Mats is Swedish but now is based in Austria. He seems one of the natural inheritors of free form warrior from the likes of Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. These amazing (and still playing) musicians opened the doors — no, repharase that: kicked the doors open — for free form in the late ’60s and free and improvised jazz has continued to evolve. Davey Payne, Terry Day, Alan Wilkinson, Ken Vandermark and many others carry the torch burning ever brightly against the darkness in the corridors of musical ordinariness. Venues like Cafe Oto and tThe New Vortex in London, Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Blue Tomato in Vienna and Budapest Jazz Club in Hungary support free-form jazz music.

Free form today, however, is not really like the original anarchic, atonal, dichordant sounds of its birth, although these are still to be found. It has now taken on so many more inflences from countries like India, China, Africa and the Middle East. Musicians absorb the changes and use the sounds in their playing. Some influneces have opened even more doors, such as the microtones associated with Indian sitar music — an unlikely source of free playing, but not when you consider sitar players rarely learned written music in the first place because so much was improvised.

Free form music has a small but dedicated following and it is musicians like Mats who see to it that it never loses momentum. Mats will never let things rest; he is tenacious, relentless in his pursuit of perfection, lively and — OK — just a little adorable.

He freely acknowledges the debt free music owes to players of the past but Mats continues to push boundaries and has developed his own style of playing. Since 2009, he has been involved in his Fire Project, delivering sets of power and passion to audiences across Europe. He recently played a two-day residency at Cafe Oto, London with Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark as Sonore — essentially the sax section of Brötzmann’s Tentet. He recently sent me an email outlining his projects at the moment. They include the NU Ensemble, which consists of 12 musicians and dedicated to Mats’ life long hero Little Richard, which may surprise but then again, this is Mats.

The Nu Ensemble is a 12-piece group including: Peter Evans – trumpets; Mats Gustafsson – saxes, electronics, piano; Joe Mcphee – trumpet, sax and space organ; Christer Bothén – bass clarinet, guimbri; Agusti Fernandez – piano and organ; Kjell Nordeson – vibes, drums, flexatone, glockenspiel; Stine J Motland – vocals; Dieb 13 – turntables; Per Åke Holmlander – tuba; Jon Rune Strom – bass; Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten – bass; and Paal Nilssen-Love – drums.

He is playing with bagpipe master Erwan Kerawec and European improv maestro Günter Christmann. He is also working on his first symphony — Symphony Number 1 for a large symphony orchestra, turntable and sax soloist. That’s set to premiere in October 2014. For a long time, Mats has had his Fire project and in 2015 he will take it to the theater in Stockholm as a large-stage production. He is also involved with his groups, the Thing and the Fire! Orchestra.

For Mats, music is his communication tool of choice. He holds little value for boundaries, preconceptions and always wants to take music to new levels and reach more people. His early musical influences were improvised free European jazz, but Mats is committed to using influences from all over the world and constantly adding, pushing, freeing music.

Surprisingly, Mats’ earliest inspiration was a sax player with Little Richard, Grady Gaines. As Mats put it to me: “What got me going when I was about 16 years old was that amazing sax sound behind the equally great raspy voice of Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard) on those early Specialty recordings!” He adds: “Other heavy DNA-changing reasons to follow the path of free music have been Lars Gullin, Brötzmann, Ayler, Bunk Johnson and Bengt Nordström. A bit later, I understood what Evan Parker was talking about — “my roots are in my record player,” I try to combine these truths on my own path.”

Mats plays mostly saxophone but also plays the flute (the instrument he started on), piano, tenor sax, soprano sax, fluteophone, sopranino sax, alto sax, baritone sax, alto fluteophone, contra bass sax, slide sax and bass sax — but now his main instruments are baritone and tenor sax.

Most would place Mats firmly in the free-jazz category, if categories must be used, but for Mats categorization is nonsense. It is just the music which is important. Naming it is for other people. He explained: “In the whole history of jazz, there has been a striving for freedom in one way or another to improvise music until we get to what you call free form and free jazz. I prefer to play music where I feel challanged. Music that kicks my mind and ass in new directions. What other people call the music, I don’t care. For me, it is important with a certain element of improvisation in the music and that I really interact with the other people on (or off) stage.”

“Free form was, for me, a very logical development of the music we had before and it was primarily for both political and artistic reasons that the music opened up and deepened. It was necessary even after be-bop and hard-bop on one side and the extreme notation systems of contemporary classical music on the other. The only way to go was towards the open forms with electronic music, free jazz and more idea-based music with, for instance, flux connection. In the ’60s, when free form really emerged, there was similar experimentation in art forms like the theater, dance, poetry, art and other fields. Some players, of course, had a very direct connection to the political situation at the time but free-form jazz, with some exceptions, did not have sharp connections politically.”

To sum up, Mats says: “No one is free. You create your own freedom. Form is what you do with others. Free forms you. Free form.” And there you have it.

Mats is a self-confessed hopeless discaholic and has recently created a website dedicated to swapping recordings or different and intersting music. He listens to a huge range of sounds. “I eat anything on vinyl,” he says. “‘A piece of vinyl per day keeps the doctor away,’ as my dear collegue Olof Madsen used to say! I need my daily fix of vinyls. CDs with steaming be–bop, garage rock, west coast jazz and sound poetry! It may be a Bengt Nordström sax solo, Lars Werner and Christer Boustedt, early Sun Ra’s on Saturn, Warne Marsh, Sten Hansson and Leif Elggrens’ epic recordings made under Freud’s sofa in London.”

Mats let me know just recently he had found one of only two copies of a vinyl seven-inch by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Mats called it the “score of the decennium.” He was exctied as he felt no-one had probaby seen it before.

He also likes classical music, including Dror Feiler, Pierre Henry, Ferneyhough, Staier’s recordings of Schubert´s piano music, Glenn Gould playing J.S. Bach (“always and forever”) and Lachenmann.

What drives Mats is an unquenchable thirst for musical satisfaction. His simple philosophy is: “This music is about sharing, on all levels possible — sharing, listening and interacting. If you can learn how to listen freely, then you can learn to play freely, and then you can learn how to think freely, and finally to act freely. This is very clear to me. This is also the reason why I play this music. It is a political act in itself. Sharing is about politics. The politics I like. Therefore, I share.”

Because of the small audiences and venues for free playing, I wondered if, like many players, Mats could ever see himself playing other genres to make money — a compromise if you like. Mats is absolutely clear on this: “No way! We need to fight the stupidity back to where it belongs. (Laughs.) Really, for me, I would rather just work at a gas station or a factory (as he did for a good while) and make the music that I want and need to do. I can only do music that I’m challenged by and that makes me develop as a musician and as a person — music that gives me new perspectives, with the help of others! Music and art is way too important for me to make any compromises.”

On the current jazz scene in the UK/Europe Mats says: “It depends, of course, on how you define ‘jazz.’ but regarding this creative music scene, as we call it, I think that the situation is very bad — from an economical and work situation viewpoint. Many countries are cutting cultural budgets hard in order to save their own asses and this is having have a severe effect. On the other hand, man, the scene is more interesting then ever. There are so many more young players active now playing free and experimental music. You can’t even compare today to the ’70s or ’60s. The scene has never been so interesting and creative. More people are arriving to free form playing from a huge variety of places and backgrounds (electronic, rock, folk, rock and pop) not just from a straight jazz background. I have to say I look to the future in a very positive way.

“There is a very fresh blend of different generations and also different musical dialects at the moment — I love it! There is so much creativity in the former Eastern European countries, such as Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Slovakia where there is a huge and young audience with a big and healthy appetite! There is a lot going on at the moment. We just need to put the light on it and make politicians and others aware of these amazing human resources.”

Mats is the eternal optimist and consumate in his ability to bring energy and passion to recordings, concerts and projects. He tours regularly, plays with a variety of musicians and forms his own record labels just to get the music across to more people. He says: “There are always new things around the next corner — if you stay open, hungry and curious enough.” As well as his numerous projects, he adds the rider: “and there will, of course, show up new things that I’m not aware of as of now. You just have to see and hear it comin’!”

On analyzing, classifying and trying to put music into boxes, Mats says: “When the music really works, no analyses are necessary. It is more a state of mind. It is all about communication. We do this to really become ‘one’ with the music and the ones you play with — to become in the same state of mind. It is really hard to describe but you know when it is happening, that is for sure. This interaction between people is something rather unique.”

“I play music because I have to; I have no choice. In order to fight the stupidity back and to show new perspectives, new ways, new doors. Influences might be basically anything that kicks me — and that I can make into a personal statement. As long as you put your own personal language and voice into it, and not try to imitate or copy, you are cool, you are good. If you make music for other reasons, you ought to stay at home. (Laughs.) I’m not here to entertain, as Ayler once said.”

And yet, Mats does entertain. It is rare to meet such a passionate, ardent musician who truly believes in what he does. Mats, in his wonderful direct way, sums up the situation with playing free form beautifully by quoting Derek Bailey: “The music is like life, only better!”

With musicians like Mats, there is hope for free jazz playing: His enthusiasm and drive inspires others and he still has a bit of energy left over to work with writers like me on projects, as well as have a family life. Sometimes, his enthusiasm is a real ray of bright hope in a world where blandness seems to be taking over and everything is getting merged into digital-techno dumbed-down improvisation. When I speak to Mats, however, he encourages me, works with me and is always, always a positive influence. I, for one, hope Mats keeps being bonkers in his own way for a long time to come.

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Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Sammy Stein
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