Mats Gustafsson, John Russell, Raymond Strid – Birds + Colin Stetson and Mats Gustafsson – Stones

Mats Gustafsson, John Russell, Raymond StridBirds (dEN)
Recorded live at the 2011 Hagen Festen, Birds features Mats Gustafsson playing mostly alto sax, a much lighter instrument than his customary baritone horn, and taking his stylistic lead from the veteran acoustic guitarist John Russell.

The bulk of this performance – all 43’10” of “The Earth As The Sun And The Ravens Are Watching” – finds Russell picking over recurrent phrases and worrying away at intervalic silences with focused tenacity. His tart, percussive playing prompts his partners to counter with likewise pared-down but expressive phraseology.

Raymond Strid drums up cloudbursts of light percussion, concentrating on shimmering ripples from cymbals and a snappy patter of taut tom strikes and rimshots. Gustafsson counters with key clicks, spittle-flecked riffles and tart melodic phrases that often flutter brightly, snagged on barbs of guitar.

Russell developed his style through lessons from the late great Derek Bailey, before helping to lay the foundations of this uniquely dry acoustic improv aesthetic alongside his partners in the Russel/Durrant/Butcher trio and the electroacoustic News From The Shed ensemble. He’s in his element here, playing with the lacerating refinement of an unplugged Sonny Sharrock, and a palpable urgency in the responsiveness of his partners makes this performance particularly compelling.

With the trio holding attack and suspense in the balance, often playing at volumes just above the threshold of audibility, the prickly intensity their friction generates is riveting.

I’ve witnessed Gustafsson playing with similar delicacy live (notably in a duet with Kiku Day’s shakahachi), and he and Strid have an established trio partnership with British bassist Barry Guy which explores similar territory, but Birds captures an outstanding performance that bears repeated listening.

A brief concluding number, “The Birds, They Fly As They Want, Don’t They?”, makes for a handy DL taster. (The titles to the two pieces, incidentally, are taken from Tomas Bannerhed’s novel Korparna (The Ravens).)

Colin Stetson & Mats GustafssonStones (Rune Grammofon) – 14 JANUARY
For Stones, Gustafsson’s paired with Colin Stetson, a Montreal-based session musician (Bon Iver, TV On The Radio) best known by his work for Arcade Fire. But he’s also played with Anthony Braxton, and recorded multi-track solo albums which make freeform sax accessible (e.g. New History Warfare Vol. 2, which features vocals by Laurie Anderson).

The short Stones album comprises four tracks recorded live at the 2011 Vancouver Jazz Festival. It was apparently Stetson and Gustafsson’s first meeting, which seems hard to credit given the way they ease into kickoff track “Stones That Rest Heavily”, languidly locking bass (Stetson) and baritone (Gustafsson) saxophones in a low-end mating ritual.

The heat rises on the three subsequent pieces, but no matter which horn either party picks up (Stetson’s lighter choice is the alto, Gustafsson’s the tenor) they focus on big breath sounds and warm vocalese.

For every passage like the one on “Stones That Need Not” where the duo come on like a barroom Borbetomagus there are balancing moments of melody and yielding softness, notably on the euphonious and ultimately bluesy “Stones That Can Only Be”.

(Those titles, again, are inspired by literature; this time the poetry of Gunnar Ekelöf.)

“Stones That Need Not” has Gustafsson’s rasping tenor tearing into an initially melodious flurry from Stetson’s alto, until Stetson turns and there’s a face-off conducted in snaps and barks. But the antagonism is playful, a sudden cooling down leading to a lengthy recalibration. A further brief flurry of fisticuffs (accompanied at one tense moment by hoarse shouts, scrapes and stomps) gives way to a lulling period of Braxtonian introspection before the close.

A child’s voice, clearly audible at the start, seems to prompt the ruminative, at times affably belligerent final exchange titled “Stones That Only Have”. It’s conducted mostly in guttural phuts and pops but maintains its melodic contour. And that’s how the exchange is rounded out. The blustery blow-out one might anticipate never materialises.

Related Posts
Mats Gustafsson, Thurston Moore and Guests at Cafe Oto, September 2012
Fete Quaqua 2012 + Evan Parker, John Russell and John Edwards at the Vortex, August 2012
Fire! with Oren Ambarchi – In the Mouth – a Hand
Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing

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