The Thing: Bag It!

In July 2010 I saw the Scandinavian free jazz trio The Thing play at the Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria. Konfrontationen is a relatively unknown but historically rather important festival. Every year since 1980 it has brought some of the world’s biggest names in jazz and improvised music – Anthony Braxton, AMM, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann and many others – to play in the courtyard of the Jazzgalerie, a café-restaurant in this small village close to the border with Hungary.

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Peterlicker: Nicht

On 9 November 1989 an East German Communist Party official named Günter Schabowski spoke to assembled journalists at a press conference in East Berlin about the mounting crisis in his country. A few minutes before the conference began, Schabowski had been handed a note by his superiors giving details of new regulations whereby private individuals could travel freely from East to West Berlin. But he was unprepared for the question that quickly came of when the new rules were to take effect. The note he had received was unclear on the matter, so Schabowski assumed that the regulations were effective immediately, and told the press conference as much. The news quickly spread, and thousands of people began gathering at the Berlin Wall. By 10.45 that evening, the checkpoints were open.

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Okkervil River: I Am Very Far

Okkervil River’s sixth album is a bold, seething piece of work, a decisive turn away from its more immediately appealing predecessors The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins. Written and recorded at the same time but released a year apart (2007 and 2008 respectively), that pair of albums was originally intended as a double – a move which would have made sense in terms of both records’ smart production and hyperactive focus on the unsavoury aspects of being in a band and of pop culture in general. But it feels good and right that this new record has a much wider and more unsettling frame of reference. It’s tricky to say what it’s about, exactly, other than to point to the sense of dread and unease that grips the listener from start to finish.

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Full Blast and Friends: Crumbling Brain

Peter Brötzmann’s recent live work seems to be mostly divided between ad hoc, one-off collaborations and a small number of regular touring ensembles. Like all improvisers, Brötzmann thrives on the new and unexpected; but he also values the deep and intuitive understanding that comes from playing with likeminded souls on a recurrent basis. In addition, it’s with his regular touring groups that he gets the opportunity to give full rein to the more intense and overdriven aspects of his art. The Chicago Tentet are the best known example (and I was much amused by the gee-whiz-look-at-us tone of London hipster venue Café Oto’s promotion of the Tentet’s recent London residency there, which conveniently ignored the fact that they have toured all over mainland Europe for a number of years), but there’s also the Hairy Bones quartet and this Full Blast trio with Swiss improvisers Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

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Mats Gustafsson: Needs!, Mats G Plays Albert A

Two very different solo albums from Swedish saxophone improviser Mats Gustafsson, each of them showcasing a particular aspect of his work. Gustafsson is that rare thing, an improviser whose presence has impinged upon a much wider consciousness than that of the tight-knit jazz and improv community. Collaborations with avant rock hotshots like Jim O’Rourke and Thurston Moore have given his name a certain cachet of cool, while – more significantly, in my view – he was recently awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize. He’s best known as a brawny, immensely physical player of the tenor and baritone sax, always clad in a tight T-shirt drenched with sweat, his face reddening and veins fit to burst as he gleefully expands on the musical vocabulary of Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann. Exemplified by his membership of groups like The Thing and the all-reeds trio Sonore, this is for my money his most intense and rewarding mode of activity. But he’s also increasingly fond of live electronics and electro-acoustic improv, something that comes to the fore on Needs!

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Primordial Undermind: Last Worldly Bond

If asked to think of contemporary music coming out of Vienna, many would probably call to mind Pita, Fennesz and the other past and present denizens of the Mego label. But there’s another loose network of artists working in the city these days, less heralded but more numerous and, for my money, more sonically diverse and interesting. Active since the beginning of the 2000s, they operate at the intersection of avant rock, noise, free jazz and improv, often collaborating with each other both live and on record to create a warm, eclectic and beguiling sound. Some of the key players in this scene are guitarist Martin Siewert (Trapist, Heaven And), drummer Martin Brandlmayer (Radian, Trapist), keyboardist Philipp Quehenberger, turntablist dieb13, drummer Didi Kern (Bulbul, Broken Heart Collector), reedist Susanna Gartmayer and guitarist Eric Arn, whose group Primordial Undermind have put out a wonderful slice of psychedelic rock in Last Worldly Bond.

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Richard Youngs: Inceptor, Atlas of Hearts

Richard Youngs is a true English original, clearly driven not only to make music but to make it his life’s work. With a discography currently running to around 50 full-length albums in many different styles and on many different labels, some completely solo, some with collaborators, on a bewildering variety of formats, he’s impossible to pin down or to keep up with. And that, of course, is what makes his work so fascinating. Youngs is no dabbler or bedroom no-hoper; I’ve heard only a fraction of his vast output, but what’s clear to me is that he’s a dedicated and serious-minded artist of the highest calibre. That he’s able to retain such a high level of quality across so many releases and such a breadth of styles is nothing short of remarkable.

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Fire!: You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago; Fire! with Jim O’Rourke: Unreleased?

Exceptionally fine pair of albums from a genuine Swedish supergroup. Fire! consists of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, multi-instrumentalist Johan Berthling (of Tape) and drummer Andreas Werliin (of Wildbirds & Peacedrums), who together have created a compelling spin on free jazz, noise and psychedelic rock. Gustafsson is the mighty free improv overlord whose sax blasts its way through his work with The Thing, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and many other solo and group outings. As co-owner of the Häpna label, as well as with his group Tape, Berthling has an offbeat pop vision that comes across vividly in his contributions on bass, guitar and Hammond organ. Werliin, meanwhile, is the glue that holds the group together. His drumming is relentless and incredibly propulsive.

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Zu: Carboniferous

Picked this one up thanks to a connection with German free jazz colossus Peter Brötzmann. Zu are an Italian trio consisting of Luca Mai on saxophone, Massimo Pupillo on bass guitar and Jacopo Battaglia on drums; Pupillo plays regularly with Brötzmann in a quartet that goes by the name of Hairy Bones. His ominously throbbing bass is a key element of that group’s sound, which was enough to make me want to check out the most recent release by his core group. Well, even though three-quarters of the Hairy Bones line-up mirrors that of Zu as regards instrumentation (the Brötzmann quartet boasts a trumpeter as well as sax, bass and drums), the two groups could not sound more different. Carboniferous owes little to free jazz, being a heavy and monolithic journey through math rock and metal.

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