Mats Gustafsson – MG 50: Peace and Fire (2016)

MG 50: Peace and Fire is set of a series of recordings made in 2014 and released this summer on the Trost label. Mats Gustafsson recently emailed me from a taxi in London saying he had just played the St. John sessions with Thurston Moore and and Merzbow. Great sessions by all accounts. “Classic, cool jazz, ha ha,” Mats commented. The “ha ha” was there, I guessed, because he knows that for both of us cool jazz is not our first port of call in the great jazz universe — though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

He said he would get his label to send me his latest four-disc set, and next day it duly arrived by the magic of computer downloads. MG 50: Peace and Fire was recorded over three days in October 2014 to celebrate Mats’ 50th birthday. And it is a celebration. Mats is part of so much that is jazz, he is in danger of becoming a phenomenon. He curates events; he has orchestrated jazz; he has written and debuted symphonies with jazz solos — and all of the music is given, shared and executed with an intensity which is so part of Mats’ make-up.

MG 50: Peace and Fire is about sharing with friends. It should be called Mats Gustafsson and Friends, because it is an excursion into music making of the highest and most profound quality — not only from Mats but by a stellar line up picked from some of the best players around.

It is almost impossible to believe Mats is 50. He has the energy of a teenager on speed, the dexterity and inquisitive nature of an artist still creating and learning and the attention to detail of a true master. MG 50: Peace and Fire can only deliver a glimpse, a pinch, a taste of the music, but it does it well and you get a sense of the energy and passion with which Mats Gustafsson approaches music, jazz and most of all, life.

The first track “Fire” opens with a conversation between Mats on sax and percussion, Mats’ stut playing setting off the staccato of the percussive answers beautifully. Next comes “Birthday Boy,” with a fugue of different sounds and impressions, followed by “Part of Klingend and Festgehalten” and a version of Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t know What Time It Was’ with vocals from Sven Ake-Johansson over gentle percussion — which may or may not have been bottle caps rubbed over the skins.

W. Green and E Heymann’s, “I Cover The Waterfront” is given a free improvisational treatment, again with vocals from Sven over brushes on a snare drum. It’s interesting, with a lovely rhythm battered out in the second part. “Lidingo Airport” features a soft, almost whispery sax building into a bluesy rhythm picked up by everyone. They begin swinging and grooving for just a short while before Mats Gustafsson quickly disposes of any thoughts of lingering with your eyes closed. He smashes the tune and wails up and up, exploring, seeking that “something” which he always finds in the music. Finally, he hits the upper register screaming before taking it down again for a soft, gentler ending. This is how you play the jazz. Marvelous.

“Quincy” is a lot of sucking and blowing over percussion before the brassy, strong theme belts out over the top changing the expectation — and, at the same time, demonstrating everything is never what it seems, at least not in this world. Mats and his friends play big band for a while, before quietening it down with a lovely song between saxes, brass and some weird and wonderful sounds emerge, then there’s a final flourish. “Du Gladjerika Skona” starts with a vibraphone solo, followed by an eclectic blast from more or less everyone at once, punctuated at times by ear-piercing electronics. The vibes are good.

“Master” is packed full of odd noises, sound exploration and electric piercing before the sax enters with cheeky, playful melody, overblown at times, and then some speech and a bit of voice distortion before the saxes and others take it back and make a tune of it. “I Accept My Longings, The Travels” starts with percussion, electronic whizzes and surges and basically goes from there with a build, a drop, a build, another drop, each time different textual layers are added and an exploration is undertaken, with the listener in tow. Impossible to describe, wonderful to listen to.

“Wien” is awkward to listen to initially, with stretched vocals, squeaked woods and intricately woven percussion. This continues until, at the point of exit, a beautiful, soft, sultry vocal enters and makes it something completely different and magical. Then it morphs again into a throaty, choking, guttural noise screen. Intriguing but not that pleasant — which is possibly the point. The voice is used as an instrument, enhancing the screeching, electronically enhanced noise patterns. This is a clever track but, like I said, not pleasant. “Molting Slowly (Without Noticing)” is primal in its intensity, and is lifted by electric guitar and vocals which are deep, sonorous and emotive. It is the closest thing to a “song” on MG 50: Peace and Fire and it is structured — in some crazy, Mats’ World kind of way, but it is beautiful.

“Exit Part Two” is driven by deep bass lines and drums with manic sax overplayed right across the lines. It is thrumming, massively heavy on the rhythm and relentless. Now, you can close your eyes and go someplace else: This is gorgeous and intense, with a final section that builds to the point of exploding. This is wondrous, period. “Would I Whip” is a frolic into sound, beginning with screaming, wailing sax over deep bass, which carries on relentlessly, throwing out the rhythm like building bricks over foundation of the percussion. The sax catches then, filling the gaps like mortar between the bricks and builds into a sound wall of multi-textured, multi-layered sensory assailants. Lovely.

“Konstellation” is more sound exploration with a lovely baritone sax part, echoed fluidly by the deep bass of the drum and counter-marked by the picky, tricky percussion. “Intervention” is interesting for its rapidity in the middle section, provided by both flute and percussion; “One” is the perfect foil to this track with its light, pernickety percussive notations. “Two” is light, interesting and, at times, the percussion is such it is difficult to gauge what is making the sounds. This is followed by “Unnoticed/Battle,” which is sax-led and a wonderful collaboration between the musicians. Variations and progressions of the theme are connected by the unity of development, and the theme is allowed evolve with the ingredients delicately (or not so delicately) blending. They finish with a conversation of sax and drums, and the sax is completely bonkers but brilliant. One of the many highlights found on MG 50: Peace and Fire.

“Unheard/Yiel” starts with improvisational sax under which a throbbing electronic noise enters and develops into a stut-noted duet between saxes. There’s nothing else for a while, just alto and tenor enjoying themselves before they are joined by various strings, brass and percussion as well as electronic sounds and the number becomes something else again. Then, it settles into a mad-cap escapade of sound which is both high speed, frenetic and yet solid as a rock in its knowledge of where it is taking you. There is a fast-paced section towards the end where it feels like there is a race going on, so speedy and competitive the instruments sound, but there is control and this is another highlight track. “Unseen/Mirror the Perspectives” is crazy, sax-led and impressive; it’s followed by “Miramar,” which is as good for the silences interspersed between drums, vibraphone and other percussive sounds made on goodness knows what — though bottles, cow bells and bass drum are some of them — as it is for the actual sounds. An exploration of the effects of allowing the room to speak, as it were. Clever and really intriguing.

“Summer with M” has a lovely vibraphone solo, and as such is lovely with the development of ever-more complex rhythms and sounds, followed by “Fifty is Just the Beginning” which has much whistling at the start before something enters, something so deep — it might be a baritone sax or bass trombone but the sound is distorted and so deep it is hard to tell. Whatever it is, the effect is astounding, and you listen intently for the next piece of the sound jigsaw. It is ridiculously deep and incredibly breathy but intriguing at the deepest level.

“MatsMatMaM/MatsAtsTsT” is percussive and includes sounds like sheets of perspex tearing, dusters on the skins and maybe someone disappearing down wooden stairs before strange ethereal noises come in and what sounds like piano strings are played in a continuous crescendo before the piano notes resonate and it finishes. Another hard piece to listen to, until you listen to the undertow of different instruments flitting in and out — and that is glorious. “Urban Pipes” is bagpipes (surprise), but unlike any bagpipes I ever heard before. Erwan Keravec makes the bagpipes bend to his will. He growls, wheezes, and creates accordion-like sections, amongst droning rivers of sound where the notes intertwine, overlap and work against each other like wild cats in a bag. In one section, he intersperses long pauses between banshee wails from the pipes. This is either a delight or a nightmare, depending on your take of bag pipes. “Vienna Upstairs” is a great adventure in sounds, with both the interlude and improvised sections including an absolute corker of a middle section with sax over tubes (bells). This is followed by “Ha Den Aran,” which closes the set with some style and is again keen improvisation.

Listening to all the tracks on MG 50: Peace and Fire in one sitting leaves you reeling, not only because the music has such a lot to it but because each time you should take a break it is impossible to do so. This music grabs you and holds you. The recordings, because they were live, and so many musicians and ensembles took part, make it difficult to hear what instrument or other device played on an instrument makes each sound — or even who is playing at times. But it matters little with this music. Instruments are played conventionally and unconventionally, their registers and possibilities explored fully.

Mats Gustafsson said he felt having a birthday (even a stupid one) should not throw the spotlight on one person, that he felt a bit uncomfortable, but it also gave him the chance to engage many musicians in this wonderful music he shares — and also to share the occasions of the recordings with many listeners. He himself says it is vital to remain open, inquisitive and to explore music. The friends, as well as Mats, do just that.

The thing about Mats Gustafsson is that it is not until he gets on stage that he or anyone else really knows what will emerge, but the overall feeling in this set is the sense of sharing and the fact this is not a Mats-led operation with other musicians as side-men or support. His whole philosophy revolves around the creation and sharing of music, the exploration and development of often-simple lines and the providing of platforms along which fellow musicians can drive their sounds along with him. In this, he succeeds.

This is a joining of musical minds, a creation of sounds and what will evolve, evolves — and mostly, it is good, in fact, very good. Mats Gustafsson is a player I like; Mats as a musician, I like; and his take on life and energy and enthusiasm for the music, I like. MG 50: Peace and Fire, I love.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein