Free Jazz Takes Work Sometimes
The 1960s brought us abrasive and rambunctious European improvisers such as saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker and percussionist Han Bennink. The Thing (saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love) live in this realm of free jazz with a particularly adventurous and ornery streak. The drums are frantic, the bass drenched in solid-state distortion, and the saxes are allowed to peak and distort and growl in harsh polyphony as Gustafsson interpolates his own vocalizations and cries into his caterwauling parts. Their new record BOOT!taps into this aggressive European tradition and explores some of its more Americanized progeny from the “downtown” jazz scene of Manhattan.
This set opens with their take on John Coltrane’s “India,” off of his classic quartet’s Impressionsalbum. It’s an interesting choice, since despite Coltrane’s expansive improvisations and his later shift to avant-gardism, “India” is built around a tonal center. Impressions was a landmark of modal jazz and “India” one of its exemplars. The Thing transform it into the thrash-meets-jazz bar-fight we might expect from John Zorn’s Naked City or contemporary group Gutbucket (an even more apt comparison given the prominence of Ken Thompson’s baritone sax in that quartet). While interesting, this version is far from inspired. Gustafsson’s playing brings the decidedly atonalist tendencies of Brötzmann’s skronk and squeal, the bass is as nasty and distorted as any Trevor Dunn part, and the drumming has falling-down-the stairs meets Elvin Jones aspirations, but this transforms the extraordinary beauty of “India” into something very ordinary for free jazz; it demonstrates The Thing’s capacity for experimentation, but at the cost of the song they’re working with.
The rest of the set follows suit in terms of mood, for the most part, but that’s okay. “Red River” drones and screeches its way in and out of chaos, deftly accompanied by Nilssen-Love’s jazz and grindcore/death metal drumming. Title track “BOOT!” harkens back to some of Tim Berne’s work with Big Satan and is a welcome change of pace, since it’s a bit more subtle and develops a nuanced improvisational structure. Gustafsson achieves a fine tone while Håker Flaten’s bass adds some tasteful sonic dirt and contributes occasional voice leading.
BOOT!will be well received by those aficionados familiar with Zorn, Berne, Brötzmann and Evan Parker, although the album doesn’t quite approach any of these players’ fire or ingenuity. It would be unfair to expect The Thing to meet the bar set by these masters— still, sometimes a decent (as opposed to great) free jazz record just doesn’t seem worth the work to the listener. They sometimes rely a bit too much on the frantic and emotive outbursts that the “free” is often seen as license for. However, patience will be certainly be rewarded by BOOT!, even if that does sound like damning by faint praise.