Mats Gustafsson, on the state of jazz: Something Else! Interview

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When Mats Gustafsson had a few hours to spare, I decided to ask him some questions about the music business. I was curious because Mats is without doubt one of the key musicians today, working with various orchestras, small groups and ensembles while creating diverse music including albums crammed with structured pieces like the Thing’s Shake and creative projects like Piano Mating where two stylaphone instruments are used to create a long and winsome conversation.

He has an addiction to collecting vinyl records, and readily admits to being a discaholic. We have known each other for some time and, because of his involvement in a wide range of projects, Mats is a great barometer of the music industry — and certainly not backward in expressing his thoughts and ideas. Much of what he says is reflected in the opinions of others, and some is different, but with Mats, you know you are getting it from a musician who is as honest and forthcoming as he is aware of how music can be used to connect, communicate and express …

SAMMY STEIN: One of the things that, to me, perhaps affects jazz music is that new music seems often to be competing with re-releases and a back catalog, which has an emotional and nostalgic pull on the listener. Do you agree and if so, how can new artists hope to compete with the greats of the past. Most jazz collections contain Coltrane, Ellington, Davis etc. but new artists like Colin Webster and free players like Brötzmann are just as good, so how do they stand?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: Well, if the new players were as good and original as the old ones, the inventors, the pioneers, they would all get the credit they deserve — but the jazz landscape these days is full of misunderstandings. People trying to produce something, playing in a correct way without a personal language. If people would improvise a bit more, go deeper, stretch it out and try to develop their own language — their own language — then they would get the credit they deserve! I understand what you mean, of course, and nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It goes hand in hand with stupidness and mass-hypnotism but really, listen to some of the players from the past — the well known, like Rollins, Bird, Trane, Monk, Clifford Brown, Bunk Johnson, Mobley, Miles, Ellington and Konitz or the less known like Joe Maini, Serge Chaloff, Buddy Featherstonaugh, Harry Klein, Joe Daley, Jutta Hipp, Joe Harriott, Hal McKusick and Bengt Nordström and compare them to the contemporary players you find in the Down Beat Critic and reader polls of today. It is pretty damned obvious where you find the most creative music- within the so-called jazz genre! It is the same thing in freer jazz and improvised music. When you listen back to Ayler, Cecil, Derek Bailey, Bennink, Lovens, Evan Parker, Ornette and Blood Ulmer, you realize that there aren’t many at their standards in the new players. Very, very few. In my world, you need to develop your own thing. It is no use just copying. You can be inspired by the past — and that is our responsibility to do so! — but you need to develop your own thing. Your own language. Your own music! And there are actually huge numbers of great players, and great music, these days but I have no idea what to call their music. Some of it has to do with jazz; some others not. Is it good? Is it bad? Yet, dig deep into the music of Mette Rasmussen, Anna Högberg, Nate Wooley, Magnus Granberg, Lawrence English, Mariam Wallentin, Julien Desprez, Dieb13, John Dikeman, Lasse Marhaug, Stine Motland and others and be surprised!”

SAMMY STEIN: Why do you feel jazz is an art form that persists in the face of many obstacles — not least of which is commercial?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: For me jazz is about resistance — about improvisation. If you hold tight to that, you are all good. For me, this is the way it needs to be. Jazz will always be an art form that questions things, that deals with experiments. That is also why I get so upset listening to dudes without their own personal language. When those fuckers just try to play inside and “correct” according to a freakin’ book of rules. Rules are there to be broken. You learn the rules. You learn the thing. You learn about the history — the past. And then you can start fuckin’ it up. You have to be aware of WHAT you do. And WHY. Love it! Fuck it up! Jazz is not dead. It smells great.

SAMMY STEIN: What about the audiences?
MATS GUSTAFSSON:It actually depends on where you are working and with whom. The audience in Western Europe is more traditional and consists primarily of men in their 50s and such, scratching their (jazz) beards. The audiences in the U.S. and Eastern Europe, Russia and the greater part of Asia are generally younger and much more balanced in terms of gender. There is also an openness that is very refreshing in those countries that we as musicians appreciate. Both with Fire! and the Thing, we have noticed a younger and more mixed audience over recent years. Also in the Western parts of the EU. That is very promising for the future. There is a larger and younger audience present in Scandinavia and Western Europe at the moment — an audience that seems to be quite open frankly, not caring too much about what labels you put on the music. We play for the (jazz) beards of course, but they will never be our main interest.”

SAMMY STEIN: And the current state of the industry, in your opinion?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: The industry, in a way, has always been trying to avoid the creative music. When it comes to freer music and improvised music, it is a lot about resistance and communication and not about trying to adapt to the commercial sides of it. You do the music because you need to. We have to relate to the industry, though. We have to be able to survive on our music. But really, the so-called “market” or “industry” has never really been into what we are doing. It is still do it yourself, all along the way. So, to answer your question: No, the industry in itself is not healthy, really. It is far away from what we are doing and why we are doing it. It depends, of course, on how you define the word “healthy.” It is a complex beast, but we need to stick to our ethics and morality of it all — and focus on the actual music and the art we are doing. Sometimes, a decent label shows up that works for the benefit of the music and the musicians, but this is not always the case. These days, the major labels work in different ways. It has changed, with traditional distribution almost gone and a lot of stuff being streamed and downloaded — with or without permission. We are basically back to handing out records ourselves at concerts and selling direct to specialized shops. DIY! As long as the music reaches the ones interested it is OK, but it is a lot of work for us musicians and more problematic to reach new listeners. In a way, I would rather focus on the music and practicing my horns than schlepping around 200 LPs in a suitcase but we still do it — smiling!

SAMMY STEIN: So, in spite of these things, musicians are still drawn to jazz. Why do you think this is?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: I think that in the past, perhaps, musicians were drawn in because of the complexity of jazz, maybe and to the connection it had to literature, visual arts and other art forms. It was much more intimately connected back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But in general I think a lot of musicians and “normal” people are drawn into it because of the emotional / spiritual message in the music. I can only talk for myself. I was drawn into it because of the energy and emotional content of it all. I thought that the relation to the punk rock I was growing up with was all there, just with slightly different instruments. In actual fact, the music decides for you. I don’t know what “jazz” is, anyway. Everyone should have his or her own definition of what jazz is. In my world, the word “jazz” represents resistance, improvisation and swing. To define swing is impossible too, but you can just watch heads and necks moving, or not moving at all. Then you know if it swings or not. No matter if it is called be — bop, third stream, free improvised music or noise, or anything related. If it swings, it swings. I love that mysterious quality over the word “swing.” The same goes for harmalodic music. What is that? And how to define it? Is it interesting to define it all? Or can we live with the mystery of it all?”

SAMMY STEIN: For you, what does it mean to make jazz records halfway through the second decade of the 21st century?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: It means that you want to do it and need to do it, and therefore you do it. You are part of a heritage, a tradition. What jazz represents will always be valid, always necessary. In a society like the one we are living in — or trying to live within — we need that: art and music that asks the questions, that makes the frictions visible, that can make things change. Because it needs to change. Politics suck and there are hardly any ideological debates of any sorts any longer — just populist bullshit, mass hypnosis and short-term thinking, and mostly only about making profit of whatever and wherever. We need to start looking for the real values again. Things that develop us as musicians and therefore as human beings. Making art, making music, is part of that thing. That can open minds and ears up. So, yes, we need to continue making jazz records. These days, there is no money to make in releasing records, really. The royalty checks have more or less disappeared. It was easier to make money on records 15 years ago. Now, the only way to make money on your records is when you sell them at concerts. So, the record has become more of an artistic statement now. You do it because you want to and you need to. The Internet is helping AND destroying our possibilities to make more records. It is a complete mess. The illegal downloading is destroying our chances to invest money in proper studio sessions and creative productions. If you don’t earn any money on your records, you can’t make new ones. It is simple and slightly tragic mathematics. On the other hand, the easy access to information on the ‘net is amazing of course. You can find out about almost everything in a split second – as long as you are aware of all the freakin’ filters on the ‘net and work on your capabilities of critical and creative thinking. I don’t mean to bitch around here, but it is a problem when you don’t get your money back from what you invested in a recording session, because someone else is putting your music online without permission.

SAMMY STEIN: Is there still a place at the cutting edge for an art form whose commercial peak was in the 1950s, and which the majority of the population still associate with middle of the road records of that time?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: There is always place for the creative arts or cutting edge, as you call it. The art, the music, takes the space it needs to. We will make the necessary space. No way around it. Commercial peaks are not interesting to me. Questioning music, questioning the arts, questioning the ideologies and the politics. Music in resistance will always survive because it needs to. I don’t do music to please. I try to make music that makes me develop as a musician and a human being, and that maybe manages to raise those questions. To put a different light on certain things.

SAMMY STEIN: Do you feel some people are put off by the jazz world and its perceived identity? Is there is danger in the categorization of jazz — all the terms like be-bop, hard bop, straight ahead? Does the very language put people off?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: Labels suck. Bad. As soon as you put a label on music, or define a genre, people have preconceived opinions. They start to listen with their “jazz ears” on, with their “jazz helmets” on. We should all listen openly to music, to learn to think openly — and act openly. That is how it works. I love be-bop, hard bop, and straight-ahead jazz. I listen a lot to it, but I don’t need the labels and I would rather listen to the records from the ‘50s and ‘60s than hear a copycat / epigone playing in the same style these days. Elitism exists only if we want it to. If you listen for the emotional content, things get different. If you only listen to a “product,” if you listen for something to be perfect, you are really missing the point of what jazz can be — and is.

SAMMY STEIN: So, what of a world without jazz? Do you feel the entire world of music would be diminished if jazz were to fade away?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: Who needs jazz? It is a matter of definition. But we need the mystery. If you learn that jazz is about resistance and improvisation, yeah – then we will need jazz in order to fight the stupidities with it. It is a great tool. There are other tools as well. Music will not die. How could it?

SAMMY STEIN: Do you have any feelings about the future – how the industry can help musicians and the music, how people can connect with jazz music more?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: The industry just wants to make fast cash. They are not interested in the developments. Forget that. The future of jazz is bright and sunny — because it is up to us to make it that way. No one else is doing it for you. DIY. DIY.

SAMMY STEIN: With the travel, unsocial hours, being away, etc., how does being a musician impact on family life?
MATS GUSTAFSSON: It is, of course, a lot of sacrifice — all the time. Yet the rewards you get from the music, from your colleagues, from the audience are worth it if you have an understanding family. I am blessed with that. I couldn’t ask for more. The travel is what really destroys you. Flying these days, you end up spending a lot of cash on extra bags, overweight bags and waiting, waiting, waiting — and still the airlines mess up and take no responsibility for anything. It is tiring and frustrating. They all think short term, which is always stupid, just making you feel uncomfortable. It is really the travel that make us tired. Playing is always interesting — so far — and something I just need to do, in order to survive! But I would like to do what the great bass player Peter Kowald did for 365 days in a row some years ago — just use a bicycle to get to gigs and just stay home and play with whoever comes to town. I am done with travelling. [Mats was, at this moment, stranded inside the Newark airport, where he says he’d spent five hours surrounded by only “aggressive security and frustrated people.”] But, yeah, family life is built on trust and respect and the fact you can really talk about things to avoid misunderstandings and such. I am blessed with the most amazing family ever. They even accept my discaholism.

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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