Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It's a free jazz Thing

Sometimes I read books for pleasure, relaxation, to "veg out" if you will (Stephen King and the "Harry Potter" series come to mind), and sometimes I read books that are both pleasurable and intellectually stimulating, Mark Twain and Steinbeck, say, or the incredible multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro.

But I also read books that aren't, on the surface, much fun, like "Moby Dick," "Plutarch's Lives" and Stephen Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science," all of which I've suffered with in recent years. They're challenging, a struggle to get through. They also are a great workout for my brain and I usually slog through the last page of such tomes with a feeling of accomplishment and intellectual growth.

I listen to music, particularly jazz music, in the much same way. Sometimes I want to kick back with Jimmy Smith or revel in the intricacy of a Duke Ellington composition. But there are other times that I hanker for the challenge presented by an Anthony Braxton or Sam Rivers' "Crystals." Avant-garde freely improvised jazz, which quite frankly I used to hate, is now my aural "Moby Dick."

Which brings me to Sunday evening, part of which I spent listening, thanks to these guys, to reed and pocket trumpet legend Joe McPhee and a trio called The Thing, otherwise known as Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegians bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, all of whom also play extensively with reedist Ken Vandermark in Chicago, who's on my list of avant-garde mountains to climb.

Here's Joe McPhee talking about it before they played in Houston, Texas, last week. I was fascinated by the performance I went to and they didn't have t-shirts so I bought the CD instead, The Thing's latest "Garage," which doesn't include McPhee. The idea of the title is that they're bringing a garage rock sensibility to improvised jazz on the disk, kind of the way the Bad Plus brings a rock sensibility in general to what it does. However, these guys are to the Bad Plus what a hardcore metal band is to Buddy Holly. (OK, maybe not that extreme a contrast, but you get the idea.)

Gustafsson fittingly makes his baritone sax sound like a screaming electric guitar on "Art Star" by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, an art punk group, whatever that is, and "Aluminum" by garage rockers The White Stripes. In other places, it's like a bagpipe (and, yes, I like bagpipe music) or, on "Hey Flask," the foghorn on an ocean liner. Elsewhere, an eerie trance kind of thing starts "Eine Kliene Marschmusik," a Peter Brotzmann tune they cover, and I'm reminded of theme songs from TV shows past (Peter Gunn for one) on "Have Love Will Travel," which they performed with McPhee at the concert. Nilssen-Love's drumming should be characterized in my mind as an attack. (He even sits up high over his kit as if to dominate it.) The guy has the kind of Elvin Jones chops that raise his drums from the level of rhythm section to primary instrument. Håker Flaten's throbbing bass anchors it all, but I don't think he gets to show the versatility he displayed live. He's really an outstanding bassist in a William Parker vein.

Having listened to "Garage," I feel so smart. Kidding, but I do think it's stimulating stuff. Here's an All About Jazz review and one from the BBC.

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