"My most bountiful opportunity as a musician: constantly being moved towards this undiscovered realm, to my morrows' dream." - Vilhelm Ekelund
Over the years just past a few names in Swedish improvisational music have gained an international luminosity. These include percussionist Raymond Strid, pianist Sten Sandell and above all, saxophone player Mats Gustafsson. There are many who think that his entry on both the Swedish and the international scene was a decisive event. While this is certainly true, it is a misrepresentation to state that Swedish free improvisation grew up around him. He did not enter an empty stage, but one with a long history shaped as much by strong groups and individuals, as by a certain isolation.
The 1980s, when Gustafsson learned his musical craft, were no great shakes for free improvisation in Sweden. Taken the limited opportunities in Sweden, this truth is accepted, though there is always space for important exceptions. However, as soon as the perspective is shifted, the claim loses strength. As this was a time when the musical scene was less and less delimited by national boundaries, it seems a romantic anomaly to talk about nationality and national music. This becomes especially obvious when discussing the percussionist and improv artist Sven-Åke Johansson, this Swedish musician who lives and works in Berlin since the late 60s and who was one of those who opened new paths for improvisational music. Over the years he has been all too invisible seen from a Swedish perspective since his creative radius has remained beyond the boundaries. In truth Sweden is not his operative base, but through the years he has maintained contacts with old musical friends like pianist Per Henrik Wallin and has increased the circle to a younger generation to include Sten Sandell, Per Åke Holmlander and Mats Gustafsson.
But let us take a step back, starting in 1979!
The first full venture into free improvisational music was the ad lib 79 festival in Stockholm. The participant list included both foreign and Swedish improvisational artists. There were workshops and master classes. Some of the groups were already known, while other constellations were shaped for the moment. "There are few tasks more difficult than to summarise the music during these November days. There were no formulas or phrases to embrace it. The Swedish improvisation music seems most nearly to be a room with x number of exits, with one naturally leading to the American Jazz from the early 60s (Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, etc.," was my own attempt in a newspaper review.
Ad lib was the zenith of a creative, yet contradictory improvised decade. The 70s were marked by strong, variable music, but even by a remarkable isolation from the European scene. Indeed it was nearly an unspoken thought that we should develop nationally and thus draw out a separate musical development, a thought that set us apart rather than united us with the rest of Europe. Musicians like Sven-Åke Johansson and Per Henrik Wallin were clear exceptions. In spite of the fact that there were several strong groups and many open artists, the contact with guest improvisational artists was small, when it existed at all. It was more an exception than a rule for visiting artists like Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Phil Wachsmann, Günter Christmann, Detleff Schönenberg, Paul Lovens, Willem Breuker and Han Bennink to play with Swedish musicians. Paul Lovens has told me that he didn't even think a Swedish free improvisational genre existed. As stated, the first conscious effort to change this situation was during ad lib 79, where such artists as Michel Portal, Gianluigi Trovesi and Conny Bauer met local improvisational artists. It was odd that ad lib 79 did not inspire any records with both Swedish and European artists. However, there is an excellent recording with Bauer and Trovesi titled Secret Points (Dragon Records). This fact may provide a picture of the self-conception of improvisational music in 1979 or at least their relationship to the recording industry.
Let us step even further back!
Swedish free jazz began in isolation, in an involuntary outsider role. Its history is one of opposition and is not absent of heroic moments. The decisive impetus was when the young, still unknown saxophone player Albert Ayler stayed in Stockholm during the early 60s. One of the musicians he played with was drummer Sune Spångberg who would later be part of setting up the Iskra group. But the main inspiree of this meeting with the new music was the young jazz enthusiast and saxophone player Bengt 'Frippe' Nordström. He never played with Ayler, but they did listen intensively to recordings together, discussed at length and grew very close. Ayler's saxophone solos shaped new visions for Frippe of the music that was coming. On October 25, 1962, he recorded the new friend in a session with bassist Torbjörn Hultcrantz and Sune Spångberg. The following year he released a record through his own company Bird Notes (Bird Notes - Bengt Nordström) titled Something Different!. This was also the year when Cecil Taylor visited Stockholm. The three basic inspirational sources for Bengt Nordström were Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor.
Starting in 1963 Nordström took a page from Ayler's book and began to play more and more solo sax. It eventually became a necessity since those of his contemporaries who also were solid bebop musicians were increasingly disturbed by his more open, freer playing. Few wanted to play together with him. Eventually this brought him to release Bird Notes 2: Natural Music in his own name. In addition to a solo on a plastic alto sax, the album contains spontaneous playing together with bass player Sven Hessle. The solos were recorded in 1967 and the record was released the following year. However, by then he had already made several, very limited editions of his solo sax recordings. Natural Music exudes total confidence in his expression and the cover trumpets out three mottoes: "TOTAL IMPROVISATION!!!! CREATIVE SPIRIT!!!! SPONTANEOUS COMPOSING!!!!" During the late 60s, Bengt Nordström opened up a new world of sound and musical thinking that was ahead of his time. Seen in a European perspective, he was truly one of the pioneers.
Throughout his life, Frippe's musicianship was an example of disobedience and inattention to imperatives. It was in a way a musical Jacobinism. He maintained immense demands of honesty towards himself and his own vision, something that often gave him problems. He wasn't easy on himself and at times lived in an isolation that was as involuntary as it was painful. His spiritual and moral position had ties to both an American and a European tradition where, as Albert Ayler would have it, "music is the healing force". He was wont to liken his efforts to the wish of psychoanalysts to reveal underlying currents in human psyche, allowing these to rise to the surface uncensored and thus to make up with inhibiting rules. Indeed, he often referred to C. G. Jung! Another thinker who followed him through life was Jakob Böhme (1575-1624). In 1621 this German mystic wrote:
"Wherever the road is hardest, there you should go. Whatever the world most despises, you should choose. That which the world does, do not do. Cross the world in everything. This is the shortest path to Love. Should I, in everything, act differently towards the world, I would be in distress and despised and mocked. I would be branded as a fool. I do not ask you to harm others. But the world only loves fawning and flattery, and hypocrisy and betrayal. And the world praises only vanity and trifles. And the world only walks the path of injustice ... " (from On Transcendental Life; English translation by S. Borei after the Swedish by Erik Hermelin).
If Albert Ayler's visit to Sweden had served as a creative injection, then the several years that trumpeter Don Cherry spent here in the late 60s were just as important. The melodic, singable was mingled with the free and trancelike. Of special importance was how he opened up doors to the music of other cultures. Cherry worked with a number of Swedish jazz musicians, including those whose efforts in the mid-60s sought to break down Bebop structures to gain a freer flow. Sax player Bernt Rosengren was one who for a few years went through a flowing, melodic, free period before returning to the dense Bebop he most prefers. Nordström also played with Cherry, evidenced by an exclusive recording of the two. In the late 60s jazz was displaced by Pop though this seems most nearly to have stimulated the drive towards experimentation. One central figure was trombone player Eje Thelin, an international musician who had founded a quintet in 1961 that enjoyed success in Europe and which initially included Rosengren as well. The group's music was characterised by a restless changeability. Eje Thelin sought new forms of expression and worked with George Russel's Swedish groups. In 1966, he was on his way into the nascent European free form. He set up a quartet together with bass player Palle Danielsson, drummer Rune Carlsson (or Billy Brooks) and the French sax player Barney Wilen. This group must be counted not only among the pioneers, but also as one of the leading lights of the improvisational music during the 60s. Laid beside Wilen's fragmentary, precise improvisations, Thelin's smooth, rhythmically intense trombone rose to triumphal heights.
When the group was at its most dense in 1967, Wilen was replaced by sax player Nisse Sandström, newly returned from the US. Today a dedicated bop saxophonist, at that time he played a snorting, fresh free jazz à la Shepp. But by now the jazz climate was cold as a nail. While Thelin took a teaching job in Austria he continued to grow artistically. In 1969 he was placed first in a Down Beat survey of favourites. At that time he was part of a circle of innovative musicians like Rolf and Joachim Kühn, Don Cherry and Jacques Thollot. He collaborated in Don Cherry's legendary Eternal Rhythm Group formed during the Free Jazz Days in Baden Baden in 1967. In addition to Thelin, the group of 14 included the other great European trombonist at this time, Albert Mangelsdorff, as well as guitar player Sonny Sharrock, pianist Joachim Kühn and drummer Jacques Thollot. The singable openness in the new improvisational freedom illuminates every piece. The nearly hypnotic style is apparent in the album titled Eternal Rhythm (MPS) recorded at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 1968.
Kühn and Thelin also formed the core of a group that had Adelhard Roidinger on bass and either Jacques Thollot or Jack O'Payne on drums. The long, horizontal trombone lines laid down by Thelin offered a rhythmic explosivity met by Kühn's glittering, crystalline piano. They were at the same time pioneers and early masters within free jazz. There are convincing albums to listen to from Thelin's experimental years, including In Paris (Metronome; 1970) with Kühn-Thelin and Candles of Vision (Calig; 1971) with the interesting trio made up of Thelin, baritone sax player Jouck Minour and percussionist Pierre Favre. However, when Thelin returned to Sweden in 1972, he left free improvisation behind.
Eje Thelin was not the only pioneer. During the 60s and 70s pianist Lasse Werner's group played worrying, free and unpredictable music. Even if it cannot be called freeform, it owns a comparable attitude. Trumpeter Bengt Ernryd and pianist Jan Wallgren offer a combination of ringing, modal scales, rhythms from northern India and a free form, hardly everyday listening for jazz enthusiasts of the day. Ernryd's groups had an aggressive presentation that sometimes broke through strictly musical limits (Musik, 1966, Magnum. Bengt Ernryd 1963-64 and with Ivan Oscarsson, Ivan the Terrible, Dragon Records).
There are several early, important musical happenings in the Swedish history of free improvisation. In addition to Ayler's sojourn, there was the jazz club Gyllene Cirkeln in Stockholm where both Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor played, the Stockholm Jazz Days 1967 where Thelin's new group performed and the visit in August of the same year by Brötzmann, Sven-Åke Johansson and Peter Kowald, the trio that would revolutionise free improvisation music with their album For Adolphe Sax (BRÖ/FMP).
Then there was a remarkable collectivist experiment that would have a deep influence on the future, though on a completely different level. This was the unbridled GL Unit led by sax player Gunnar Lindqvist. The band, comprising some twenty players, had a series of unruly concerts on the Stockholm Terrace in 1969-70. Its melting pot was the home to both bop-musicians like Bernt Rosengren and searchers like Bengt Nordström, and Sven-Åke Johansson played an important role during the spring 1970. The GL Unit presented a roaring, unrestrained music that embraces the soloists ecstatically. Bengt Nordström created some of his most affecting solos in this company. The group released a record that today is hard to find, namely Orangutang! (EMI). At that time the album felt cheeky with a grinning ape face on its cover, but today when I listen to it, I am struck by the dynamic splendour and a singable beauty that almost evokes melancholy.
There was a new generation that had been turned on by the free approach. Among them were the two bass players Tuomo Haapala and Arvid Uggla who used to jam together. In 1970 they began to feel the need to have some other musicians to improvise with, mainly wind players and percussionist who they sought via notes on bulletin boards and ads in the Orkester Journalen and Dagens Nyheter. In this way they got in touch with sax players Philip Wahren and Jörgen Adolfsson.
This four-some worked together until early in 1971 when they heard that there was a group of musicians on Hornsgatan in Stockholm's Söder district who were playing improvised music. It turned out to be Gunnar Lindqvist's GL Unit whose music was based on the imagination and creativity of each individual musician. Common harmonics, a shared focus around traditional jazz themes and the use of key-bound improvisation - all was thrown overboard. What was left was a mutual trust as the basis for working within the group. Whole ensemble sections were played without any major preparation. This way of working created self-confidence and placed high demands on being able to listen. The music was truly a creature of the ears and the heart. The young seekers learned a lot.
Baritone sax player and jazz veteran Allan Olsson was one member of the GL Unit. He in turn introduced them to drummer Sune Spångberg and in March 1971 they formed Iskra, unaware that there already existed a British group by that name. The reason for resuscitating the name of the old Bolshevik newspaper was the same for both groups, namely a mixture of music and politics: a music that could be a spark, that could light a fire, if in no other way, a musical one. However, the market for free improvisational music was bleak. Places to play were rare. While hunting sites, Iskra came in contact with a small theatre in Stockholm named Teater 9. It was here that the music series named Öppen musik (Open Music) was started, a central musical happening where the scene was opened to as many forms of musical expression as possible. This was Iskra's venue and they were joined by Bernt Rosengren, the Turkish-inspired jazz group Sevda, the English/South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza, singer Jan Hammarlund, the jazz group Rena Rama and many more. Open Music gave some twenty concerts to its Stockholm audience before the project was ended in 1973. And in the same year, Philip Wahren left Iskra.
Iskra's music was sketched freehand. Only a few guide posts existed. Improvisation and ensemble work formed the core. But there was plenty of space for tonally free passages, rhythmic interplay using percussion and noise instruments, wonderfully quiescent moments with an amadindan (a large, African xylophone), humoristic interludes and siren calls from Asian cultures. The playing could start very attentively and thoughtfully. Sune Spångberg was and is still a percussionist with an almost ascetic economy where pauses were de rigeur before larger gestures. Allan Olsson was an older, experienced bop-musician who played coherent, long, lyrical lines, sometimes somewhat coloured by Swedish folk music. Olsson's baritone sax held exactly all the strength the instrument seems able to carry. Jörgen Adolfsson's flute was surprising and his saxophone could bite. Sometimes, when he played electric guitar, he would turn the concepts about that instrument topsy-turvy, using it as a fully sound-oriented, creator of sound. Iskra experimented with music. It alternated between the pullingly rhythmic as when the group gathered round the amadinda, the playful and the immensely free moments when the group condensed as if it were one instrument.
Sax player Jörgen Adolfsson is one of the larger profiles in Swedish improvisational music. His broad know-how has enabled him to act constantly as an introducer of other musicians and as a support for younger generations. He was and remains an ensemble musician who could have been one of the great soloists of free improvisation. This can be sensed during one of the rare moments when he pulls a solo, only to take a quick step back into the group. Iskra produced several excellent albums, including Jazz i Sverige - 75 (Caprice), Allemansrätt (The Right to Public Access; Ett Minne För Livet, 1977), Besvärjelser (Incantations; Ett Minne För Livet, 1979) and Fantasies (Mistlur, 1983). It was very much a live band. The dense, trancelike magic that marked their most inspired performances can only be sensed on the records. The late recording for the CD Luft (Air; Dragon DRCD 200) with the Adolfsson-Haapala-Spångberg trio contains some explosive material.
Iskra was part of a musicians' collective called Ett Minne För Livet (A Lifelong Remembrance), a grouping whose varied range of members, including singer Marie Selander, Iskra, folk musician Styrbjörn Bergelt and Archimedes Badkar, made it possible to use African, Bebop, Swedish and American folk music, art music and free improvisational genres. I am convinced that Don Cherry's long stay and work in Sweden had great import on just this group of musicians.
It is necessary to say a few words about the remarkable group named Archimedes Badkar (Archimedes' bathtub). Jörgen Adolfsson was one of the members and a source of inspiration. Listening to the band reveals a clear development line, starting with an emphasis on Terry Riley and moving on to an avant garde from western Europe. The Terry Riley music is most clearly heard on the double album Archimedes Badkar II (MNW, 1976), while the debut record titled Badrock för barn av alla åldrar (Bathrobe for children of all ages; MNW) contains a glorious, headstrong mix of free jazz, folk music and strong rhythms. Its members included such musicians as percussionist Per Tjernberg, later known as Per Cussion, and the lyrical trumpeter Tommy Adolfsson. A little later such well known musicians as Bengt Berger and Christer Bothén came in and reinforced the African influence.
Archimedes Badkar was a headstrong collection of musicians. While being open to music from around the world was typical of the times, few groups accomplished this better than Archimedes Badkar, in part thanks to its mix of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, folk music, free jazz and Bebop. It could really rock!
The formation of Iskra was soon followed by Lokomotiv Konkret. Membership in this group has shifted somewhat over the years, but it is still the only 70s group still playing. The core is sax player Dror Feiler, guitar and cello player Sören Runolf and percussionist Tommy Björk. Even if Feiler has clearly been the driving force, the musical corpus is a collective concern. Virtuosity is highly developed, tied from the beginning to a violent expression more common among German groups than Swedish ones.
Both Lokomotiv Konkret and Dror Feiler have always had a strong political awareness, a will to create in opposition, a desire to break through conventional aesthetics to attain a new, glowing beauty. Feiler believes that music must choose sides. His musical career has grown with great consequence through a type of oppositional aesthetics, at once pungent, violent and stridently dynamic. He experimented early on with a synthesiser and I heard him play a crackle box in the 70s.
The music of Lokomotiv Konkret has developed towards both the melodic and the concrete. The earliest albums exude a wondrous free jazz dynamite. Stockholm, augusti 1978 (Urspår) is in parts a tour de force for the group, while Lokomotiv Konkret (Urspår, 1980) contains a pulsating Sten Sandell on the piano and the album even has been given a typical Feiler program explanation: "Our music is the face of our time/Our music is a weapon/We are soldiers in a culturally revolutionary guerrilla war."
In appreciation, pianist Lasse Werner renamed the group Spårvagn Abstrakt (Trolley Abstract). The end of the 80s saw the melodic entering Locomotive's machinery. Feiler created melancholy, singable melodies within a central European and Jewish tradition and with this toning down freed an aching, ardent intensity displayed in A voice still heard (Alice ALCD 003). By then his compositions were often performed internationally. Parallel to this development, he blended free music, art music and concrete music - in this case truly concrete using the whole range of concrete rock instrumentation, including drilling machines and tools - in the ensemble named The Too Much Too Soon Orchestra. Here maximum dynamics ruled, with deafening nuances and body-shaking vibrations. The music is not to leave anyone untouched - it is a sector of the front. The recording by Dror Feiler & The Too Much Too Soon Orchestra's titled What is the point of Paris? (Fylkingen FYCD 1007) is still one of the most physically affecting works of free improvisational music!
By now we have reached the 90s via the 80s. But we must return to the 70s in order to make a connection that granted vital energy to the musical scene, for without pianist Per-Henrik Wallin Swedish free improvisational music and jazz would have been much tamer. He was a childhood friend of drummer Sven-Åke Johansson and these two played together early on. As a young man, Wallin also played with Eje Thelin.
Wallin came to Stockholm in the mid-70s and formed a trio that was amazing by whatever comparisons chosen. His partners were alto sax player Lars Göran Ulander and drummer Peter Olsen. The trio played a flowing, free music that escaped all stylistic definitions, filled with a extremely energetic and dynamic. The trio released the album The New Figaro (Dragon, 1975). In 1978 the trio changed with Torbjörn Hultcrantz on bass and Erik Dahlbäck on drums. This group stayed together for ten years and has been named one of the most original and dynamic in Swedish jazz. Its music was eager and restless. In Wallin one could find the full flow of piano jazz history, ranging through arias, songs and schlagers, indeed all kinds of music rolled together in a powerful, decisive and often exceedingly brilliant piano performance. Wallin's trio was unusually well blended, commanding a music filled with sudden shifts, tempo changes and an immense sonoral and dynamic richness. There are several recordings including a recent release of previously unpublished material from radio archives titled Coyote (Dragon DRC320, 1986-87). In 1986 a superb double-album was released together with Sven-Åke Johansson. Titled Magnetische Hunde (FMP), it is filled with Johansson's typical style of presenting 'songs', improvised strings and playing accordion. It suits Wallin perfectly.
In 1988 Wallin had an accident that leaves him in a wheelchair paralysed from the chest downwards. He has, however, made a brilliant return to music of late, albeit without being able to use the pedals and with a certain limitation at the highest tempi. The limitations have been well compensated for by an existential deepening. The release of Dolphins, Dolphins, Dolphins (Dragon DRCD215, 1991) together with Mats Gustafsson and percussionist Kjell Nordeson from the Aaly Trio, was somewhat of a reappearance after the silence of his convalescence period.
The 80s were a decade of circumspection. Iskra, Lokomotiv Konkret and Miljövårdsverket were active, the last led by Bengt 'Frippe' Nordström with Peeter Uuskyla on drums, both Björn Alke and Ulf Åkerhielm on bass plus a number of other players (Now's the Frippe Time; Dragon, 1984). A new generation was rising.
In 1978, saxophonist Johan Petri and guitar player Peter Söderberg had formed the duo Så Vidare. Their aesthetics departed noticeably from the accustomed free form heard in Iskra and Lokomotiv Konkret. It was free, but still influenced by regular jazz. Petri's sax would slowly mature, reaching a contemplative expression. But at the close of the 70s, they were in an explorative beginning. The duo became a trio with the addition of pianist Sten Sandell from Lokomotiv Konkret.
These musicians exemplified a movement towards the modernism of art music, true also of the trio Tvist where Petri also played. The two groups both made their recording debut during the 80s by releasing albums on the small Organic Music label. The music was inquiring and sought to avoid being mixed up in what had been, preferring to learn from it. The direction was firmed up in the mid-80s when Petri, Sandell and Söderberg released an album on the Bauta Records label. Here Sandell's personal style steps forward, a repetitive, trancelike form drawing energy from rock, experience from art music and displaying a growing ability to concentrate the music. It was a music that found its place in an intense present.
This is where one the most original creative spirits in Swedish music appears - Sandell. However, Petri's low-key and contemplative playing led him to take another role than that of chief editor. Among his rare performances can be counted a spare masterpiece titled I fear this war (Alice ALCD 012, 1994), recorded with Kjell Nordeson. It is music that approaches composition.
For all its variegated nature, Sten Sandell's album Now or Never (1988) is an invaluable document of the free form that soon would gain in strength. Sandell invited the strong-minded guitar player Sören Runolf, sonoral master both as soloist and in Lokomotiv Konkret, Johan Petri, voice improvisational artist Marie Selander, percussionist Raymond Strid who was patiently and systematically moving towards a non-symmetrical sound form, as well as a young saxophone player just down from Umeå in northern Sweden, one Mats Gustafsson.
Now or Never is a watershed in Swedish improvisational music. Sandell has set up different formations - a few numbers that still are superb today with Runolf and Sandell where they use sampling, others where Gustafsson, Runolf, Sandell and Strid try to condense the free form playing, and the trio number with Gustafsson, Sandell and Strid. The last combination is identical with the epoch-making group Gush that is the gate to the 90s.
During the time when Så Vidare existed (1979-89), Sandell developed a rhythmic-sonoral individuality, not least as soloist. This in turn revealed his interest for contemporary art music (Cage, Feldman et al.) and non-European music (India and Japan). Repeated figures performed in a nearly trancelike manner, plus a growing interest in expanding the piano's sonoral capacity by the addition of voice, percussion, electronics and more led Sandell to an increasingly personal expression. The various influences that had appeared in his music blended into a whole. In addition, Sandell owns a nearly compositional sense of form, not least in his most recent recordings (Frames; Bauta Records, BAR 9402, 1994; Behind the chords; LJ Records CD 5216, 1998; and Bio elektrika; LJ Records CD 5226, 2000). He gives his music a rich, coherent suite-like nature full of contrasts. Sandell is also a member of Sven-Åke Johansson's group that also includes trumpeter Axel Dörner and others (Six little pieces for quintet; Hatology 538, 1999).
As noted above, Sandell is a member of Gush. But before we go on, we must take some time on another third of Gush, namely percussionist Raymond Strid. In trying to characterise Strid, I would say he is a listener, a seeker and an exacting sampler of sounds and combinations. His spare, precise sounds and his non-metric intensity are the result of patient practice. As a musician he has received nothing for free and in the group he is both ahead of and behind his compatriots when it comes to listening. His ensemble playing can be superb, but also humoristic and nearly bombastic - a truly unique percussionist. In partnership with clarinet player Paul Pignon he has appeared in a series pure masterpieces in 1991, namely Far from Equilibrium (Alice ALCD 007), an album that like his to my mind deeply original duo album with Michael Zerang (Scratch match; Penumbra CD 009) has been unfairly forgotten. It is far from pleasing to the public when an artist consciously seeks the essence in free music and avoids rhetorical gestures.
As said above, sax player Mats Gustafsson moved from Umeå to Stockholm in 1985. In his native city he had played with percussionist Kjell Nordeson, a future member of the Aaly Trio. In the capital he came in contact with guitar player Christian Munthe and plays duet with him in Two Slices of Electric/Acoustic Car. Munthe is one of these free improvisationalists who create a thoroughly original music without concern about success and attention. This is apparent in the few albums where this guitarist and philosopher takes part. In munt munt (Blue Tower Records BTCD 04, 1994) raspy solos and dense duets with tuba player Per-Åke Holmlander, as well as with Phil Minton, Raymond Strid and Philipp Wachsmann are proof. Once down in Stockholm, Gustafsson soon met Raymond Strid and Sten Sandell. The meeting truly shaped his career. Not only did they start Gush in 1988, but he also made several personal and artistic decisions on how to approach music and how to move on in his playing. The association was a union of friendship and music.
Towards the end of the 80s the free improvisatory music grew apace. It even gained a place to meet - if small in space, it was decidedly large in effect. The place was the second-hand store for books and records named Blå Tornet (The Blue Tower). Located in the same house on Drottninggatan as where August Strindberg lived during his last years, the store was owned by Harald Hult, a jazz connoisseur and enthusiast. At one stroke, the young musicians had found a soul mate and a meeting place. They started what was called Improvised Fridays, though other days were soon included as well. The musicians crowded in on a landing among the bookcases while the public was pressed in below. Twenty listeners was the maximum and even that was a tight fit.
In 1989 ten years after ad lib 79 it was time to take stock of improvised music anew. Hult, Gustafsson and the artist Edward Jarvis joined to organise the festival Sounds. Most of the groups and players invited have already been named here - Two Slices of Electric Car, Lokomotiv Konkret, Iskra, Så Vidare, The Too Much Too Soon Orchestra and Gush, as well as pianist Arne Forsén, Bengt Nordström, Sten Sandell, Raymond Strid, Peter Söderberg, Per Henrik Wallin and Lars Göran Ulander. Blue Tower Records began its operations by releasing a double album from the festival entitled Sounds: Contemporary Swedish improvised music, a recording that is much sought after today.
The venue for Sounds was the Fylkingen facility in Stockholm, in itself an interesting fact for it was just this association that served as the centre of the avant garde within Swedish music. It is in the avant garde that one of the prerequisites for free improvisatory music exists. Here could be found the consciously created sonoral spaces, point music and static structures whose inherent compositional and logical challenges were vital. While the experimenting jazz musicians didn't adopt this directly, they did use their own traditions, experiences and praxis to accept more of the spirit or the sound. Today's improvisational music picks up this argument, since so many young composers are also active improvisational artists. The breakpoint between the avant garde and free jazz is fuzzy, not only when it comes to the audible, but also when it comes to the listener's role.
While the conditions for the two might differ, the sonoral pictures can be similar. There are many examples. One is trombonist Ivo Nilsson who collaborated in the last version of Så Vidare. Another is wind player Dror Feiler. Both are active as composers while playing in various improvisational groups. When I talked about this with Ivo, he said he wants to see his work as a unity. Sounds is one way to label improvisational music, but it can also be described in a broader musical context. Instead of sounds, why not sonoral spaces? Then listen to Two Slices of Electric Car, Lokomotiv Konkret, The Too Much Too Soon Orchestra, Gush, Söderberg-Strid and Så Vidare - Ivo Nilsson avers that the music he plays shouldn't be called culmination music, a definition of conventionally played jazz with theme-solo-solo-theme, but that he uses the group to create various sonoral spaces. They can be single or several connected ones, with or without branches. The musicians, such as The Too Much Too Soon orchestra, with Dror Feiler on sax, drill and the like, Raymond King on cello, Mats Lindström doing electronics, Tommy Björk on percussion and Sören Runolf on guitar, move from space to space. In this the soloist plays another role than in traditional jazz, since instead of being a culmination and variation on a theme, s/he are part of a sound whose outer boundary is marked or varied and whose sounds are shaded. The musicians with their own, special personalities are all equal, marked by a separated by the peculiarities of each. You need only listen to the different drummers, such as to Raymond Strid's extremely varied playing - precise and dense in Gush's ecstatically intense number or eagerly intimate in the duet with Peter Söderberg's complex guitar. Or compare Strid's polyphonic sonoral fireworks with Sune Spångberg's sublimely simple performance with the last version of Iskra where he uses the precision of a calligrapher to draw his lines through the composition.
A sonoral space can be closed and cover so short a time that it approaches a single moment, while at the same time be rich and varied (Two Slices of Electric Car's Lennart; Tower BTCD 51). On the other hand it can be a monumental construct whose forms are only discernible after listening several times (The Too Much Too Soon Orchestra or Så Vidare). This manner of creation is naturally related to the fact that this music originally emphasised the collective. These sonoral spaces remind me of the construction of Baroque music or to New Orleans jazz. The German music critic Wolfgang Burde has even gone so far in an article as to suggest the elementarisation of jazz and neoprimitivism. But then it may not be a coincidence that several of the pioneers of free improvisation, including Steve Lacy, Eje Thelin, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald and Bengt 'Frippe' Nordström started their musical careers within the aesthetics of New Orleans jazz.
The meeting in 1990 between Mats Gustafsson and percussionist Paul Lovens turned out to be a high point in the development of free improvisational music. The jam session occurred during an Improvised Friday event at the Blå Tornet. With unheard of concentration the two built up tones, sounds, musical sequences never heard before - a performance that wrote music on completely blank paper. There is good reason for counting these duo-sessions between 1990 and 1991 among the masterpieces of improvisational music. Mats Gustafsson stepped onto the international scene with this album. Titled Nothing to read the album was released by Blue Tower Records (BTCD 03) after the company had moved from Drottninggatan to Rörstrandsgatan and changed its name to Andra Böcker och Skivor (Other/Second Books and Records). However, moving did not diminish its importance as a playing site for improvisational music. This became the place where Sven-Åke Johansson, Sainkho Namchylak, Jaap Blonk, Eugene Chadbourne, Roger Turner, Michael Zerang and many, many more would meet and play with Swedish musicians. It became a contact point that played a leading role during the 90s not only in the development of Swedish improvisational music, but in my strong opinion even internationally. At this time the energy came not only to Sweden, but even from.
Gush recorded its first CD in 1990. Titled From things to sounds (Dragon DRCD 204), it offers us an aesthetic where each number serves as a seed for something to be. Using an aphoristic economy each piece blended the singularity of each player into a unity. The trio was a successful combination where each member grew. In the beginning they tended to follow each other in a type of free form call and response. This style was gradually abandoned in favour of a common action within a larger musical frame, something that was most noticeable in the longer pieces, which when they are at their best move as long breaths. The very name of the group - Gush - describes the music, meaning as it does to pour out copiously. One example of the Gush mastery is the phenomenal alliance of the three individualists in the 23 minute long improvisation titled Any Warranty of from Live at Fasching (Dragon DRCD 313, 1996).
The group even welcomed other musicians, at which time its character changed noticeably. One of the most important of these is when the trio encounter with violinist and electronics player Philipp Wachsmann (Gushwachs; Bead 002, 1994). Electronic sound met acoustic on the same playing field and each must at times change positions. Strid brought in amplified sounds in a way that stressed his role as the pattern shaper who works to capture the smallest nuance and shift. Sandell's faster movements circle round an imaginary centre and Gustafsson is the ruler of the currents of air. Wachsmann wove himself into one with the music of the three Swedes, sometimes in short leaps approaching some sort of point music. I am still convinced that this is one of Gush's best albums and when I reviewed it, I wrote that "this is as close to a newly released classic as one can come. The intensity of all four musicians transport their playing and the quartet gives something more and different than just the sum of 3+1 or 1+1+1+1."
Mats Gustafsson has worked with the Aaly Trio at the same time as with Gush. This is a jazz group whose base is Free Form and Energy and whose name is clearly derived from Albert Ayler. At the start the group exhibited the furious blood-curdling play with Gustafsson trying to "blow the sax straight!" Kjell Nordeson and Gustafsson are the group veterans. At first, Niklas Billström played bass, but when he became a technician (Alice Records, et al.), he was replaced by Peter Janson.
The musical development of the trio is closely tied to Gustafsson's own. During the 90s a number of important musical events occur. One of them is the first trip to Chicago in 1994, when Gustafsson met and played with many artists, but most importantly with Michael Zerang, Jim O'Rourke and Ken Vandermark (Parrot fish eye; Gustafsson, O'Rourke, Zerang & G. Coleman; Okka Disk OS 12006, 1994). Vandermark's strong, straight action tenor sax impressed the Swede and I assume affected his further development. The two sax players formed the FJF quartet with Kent Kessler on Bass and Steve Hunt on drums. The album Blow horn (Okka OD12019, 1995) contains a number called Structure à la Malle that is heard again in a more melodic version on the Aaly Trio's Hidden in the Stomach (Silkheart SHDC 149). Vandermark joined the Aaly Trio ( Before Vandermark Aaly had at times another 'extra' member, Per Henrik Wallin.) Today Vandermark's collaboration seems nearly permanent.
The Aaly Trio embraces the strong, American jazz heritage. If we look back on the Swedish scene we can find connections to a similar aesthetic in the late 60s/early 70s in groups like Werup-Sjöström in Skåne and most certainly in the various groups of sax player Gilbert Holmström from Göteborg. New Thing already swings hard as early as 1967 (Gilbert Holmström Quartet Live in Sweden; Gillmont Music GMCD 9605) and the mid-70s album Waves from Albert Ayler by the Mount Everest Trio is a minor classic today (Unheard Music Series UMS202 CD).
Everything changed rapidly during the 90s and in general then on two fronts. Firstly the free improvisational music and certain parts of the art music avant garde approach each other. And that Fylkingen becomes an important scene is symptomatic.
It is easy to point out several actors from modern electronics and composition who ally themselves with free improvisation. I have already mentioned Mats Lindström who has been working with Sören Runolf in a live-electronic duet since 1988. The pieces they shape often have a deeply aphoristic sheen (A Wonder of Beauty and Efficiency; Fylkingen fycd 1005). When we move on to the turn of the millennium we cannot ignore the group Guds söner (Sons of God) with the artists Kent Tankred and Leif Elggren representing a tradition of sound art with more roots in the artistic avant garde, including Fluxus, than in musical modernism and free improvisation. Elggren has collaborated with both the American guitar player Kevin Drumm and with Mats Gustafsson.
One of the first manifestations to focus on the segue between interpretation and improvisation was the Solo 92 festival organised by Mats Gustafsson, Thomas Millroth and Teddy Hultberg at the Stockholm Kulturhus. The invitation list included superb interpreters of modern art music, as well as leading free improvisational artists and the arrangers asked them to collaborate. The first group held such names as vocalist Linda Hirst, percussionist Robyn Schulkovsky, guitarist Magnus Andersson, violinist Anna Lindal and bass sax player Tommie Lundberg, while the latter included Gustafsson, Strid, Sandell, Feiler, the American pianist Marilyn Crispell, the Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer, the French bassist Joëlle Léandre, the English bassist Barry Guy, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and voice improv artist Sainkho Namchylak. These cross-pollinations resulted in several new groups, among Marily Crispell's new piano trio with Strid on drums, a combination that created a remarkable musical tension between the flow aesthetics of free jazz and the deconstruction of sound inherent in free improvisation (Spring tour; Alice ALCD 013, 1995). The album Letters gives us the duet sessions from Solo 92 between Namchylak and Gustafsson, Sandell and Léandre (Leo CD LR190), with my special emphasis on the low-key, attentive collaboration between the Tuvanese singer and Sten Sandell's piano. It was late and she didn't real have the energy to sing more. Yet out of the introductory conversation - "You want to play today or not?" - the music grew without any fuss into a mighty river. In every way a true improvisation lacking preconceptions. Both played as if distracted, forgetful of self and concentrated on each other.
Improvisational music became an international concern. The Swedish improv artists worked more often with important foreign musicians and groups. Gustafsson alone has a long list of affiliations, ranging from drummer Paul Lovens (Mouth eating trees and related activities; Gustafsson-Lovens-Guy, , Okka Disk OD 12010, 1992/6), bassist Barry Guy (Guy, Gustafsson, Strid - You forget to answer; Maya MCD 9601, 1994. Frogging; Maya MCD 9702, 1996), German trombonist and cellist Günter Christmann (Vario 34; Blue Tower BTCD 06, 1995; One to (two)...; Okka Disk ODL 10002), American percussionist Hamid Drake (For Don Cherry; Okka Disk ODL 10003, 1995), Dutch voice improv artist Jaap Blonk (Improvisors; Kontrans CD 143, 1996) to Jim OĞRourke (Xylophonen virtuosen; Incus CD 83, 2000) and Joe McPhee (The Thing w/Joe McPhee; Crazy Wisdom CW 006, 2001). These are unprecedented meetings where what is worth noting is how Gustafsson's playing opens up like a fan. Throughout his comprehensive production it is amazing how seldom he repeats himself, while still remaining himself. He has the ability to see each meeting as a challenge to move on, to avoid stopping at a success, but to open up to new opportunities. This is as much a question of a moral, as it is of aesthetics.
Of all of Gustafsson's partners, I would like to specially emphasise his work with the sax player Peter Brötzmann. The group he put together towards the end of the 90s was a conglomerate of European and American artists. Brötzmann's so-called Chicago Octet/Tentet grew out of the vital Windy City music scene and through his many visits there Gustafsson had become one with the city's improvisational music life. The instrumentation of Brötzmann's group was strong - Vandermark, Kessler, Gustafsson, trumpeter Joe McPhee, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker (The Chicago Octet/Tentet; Okka Disk OD 12022, 1998). These are long, through-worked pieces that build on dynamics, melodics and shifts within a maximally compressed group performance alternated with highly individual solos. In truth, I see this phase in Brötzmann's development as a natural continuation on the activities during the late 60s when the Machine Gun album was recorded. Many of the musicians in this circle visit Europe and Sweden, becoming thus a part of our musical life.
Gustafsson's personal development as a sax player has also been important. Through practice and awareness he has created an increasingly wide reference frame of parameters tied to his musical experiences and openness to related art forms. The latter range from sound art and concrete poetry to experimental rock. The meetings with Blonk and Sven-Åke Johansson led him to Dadaism and Fluxus, while the encounter with Jim O'Rourke showed him a world of electronics and avant rock.
In his playing he has used air, breathing, hollowness, the keys and sound box of his instrument, clicks and lingual sounds, all parallel to a strongly developed rhythmic and even melodic energy flow. Not only does he improvise freely, but purely compositional considerations can also be heard (Impropositions Solo Saxophone; Phono Suecia PSCD 99, 1997). On this field of action as part of the expedition through the reed instrument's sounding landscape of metal, wood and air, Gustafsson has slowly widened the orientation. He can make use of his experiences suite-like to form something that approaches an abstract story (The education of Lars Jerry; Xeric XER CD 100, 1995/1999 - which I consider one of his most interesting albums together with Nothing to read).
His frequent instrumental opportunities could easily have drawn a shallower player away from his musical core. But in the collaboration with David Grubbs from New York (Gastr del Sol, et al.) they play as minimalistically monotonal as is possible and in the solo project dedicated to veteran Steve Lacy he shows an artistic openness that only can stimulate the audience and the surrounding world (Apertura; Blue Chopsticks BC 2, 1998; and Windows: the music of Steve Lacy; Blue Chopsticks BC 4, 1999). It is here that I sense a musically open stance and moral that offers an important source of viability for today's improvisational music.
That the advances of improvisational music that has at a minimum meant that many strict boundaries have been eliminated is attractive to young musicians was made very clear during the new Sounds 99 festival in Stockholm. In addition to Feiler, Gustafsson, Sandell, Ulander, Pignon and Wallin, we could listen new musicians, including Henry Moore Selder mixing in the DJ-culture in the improvisation (listen to his group Rock Out with drummer Niklas Korsell, Sound Check, Ideal 008/Make it happen 12), the immensely talented vocalist Lindha Svantesson, Johannes Bergmark with his invented instruments and bassist Johan Berthling. The formations varied greatly as to style.
The Low Dynamic Orchestra centred around Sandell, Söderberg, Nordeson and cellist Amit Sen had already existed several years when Sounds 99 happened, but their often exact anticipation of the sonorities of the lowest sounds was still a step into the minimalist unknown. The group celebrates Sandell's most myopic, minimalist piano triumphs (Low Dynamic Orchestra; Alice ALCD 021, 1995-96). For Sounds, the group added Gustafsson and Strid launching on a journey in an acoustic microcosm.
Cloudchamber with sax player Martin Küchen, Johannes Bergmark, Sören Runolf and violinist Christian Werner is a constellation on the road. Gul 3 offers a remarkably melodic, lovely straight line play that departs from the usual formulas of free form - sometimes almost shamelessly beautiful (Crazy Wisdom 002). The combination LSB stands for sax player Fredrik Ljungqvist, among the most pungent on the regular jazz scene, Raymond Strid and the young bassist Johan Berthling, a trio based on the energy inherent in jazz (LSB Walk Stop Look and Walk; Crazy Wisdom CW 004). Indeed, it is probably just as much fun to play their music as it is to listen to it.
To my ears one of the interesting young talents is guitar player David Stackenäs. His playing may remind the listener of Derek Bailey, being sound oriented, flowing, pieced and deconstructed, but lacks the braking effect of disassembly. As a soloist he offers a glitteringly sharp performance (Guitar; Häpna 03, 2000). Since Sounds, Stackenäs has played in such groups as the Gustafsson-Lovens international NU ensemble (Axel Dörner, Thomas Lehn, Sebi Tramontana, et al.) This group, with its contrast creating mix of acoustic instruments and electronics, provides us with an excellent opportunity hear his ability both to create rhythmic hue and to shape rhythmic sonorities. He is proof of the fact that the electronic development in music is seen in the way acoustic instruments are used in free form, mainly the saxophone, but also the guitar.
This statement leads us to the situation today where the window to avant rock gives interesting results. I believe that this is happening in parallel to a certain return to the purer energy in jazz. Let's look at the last point first. There is a strong, new wave of young, Norwegian jazz musicians. The music they create is often almost academically traditional and well schooled. They are strong players who bring the best from their companions, something Sten Sandell and Mats Gustafsson have spoken of. When Sandell played with Johan Berthling and the Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love it became true piano-trio jazz of the kind that Per Henrik Wallin is master of (Standing wave; Sofa 504). At about the same time, Sandell cut an electronic record with voice and sampled sounds that ties directly to today's electronica (Bio Elektrika; LJCD 5226). That is the way it can be today.
Regarding avant rock, collaboration between jazz and rock musicians has happened before with mixed results. The interesting happens when musicians with a rock tradition move into free improvisational music. Soundscapes - sonoral landscapes - evolve that billow with the energy of rock and the spatial awareness of sonoral art. Sandell's Bio Elektrika is a solistic example. Mats Gustafsson's various guest appearances in Sonic Youth are symptomatic, as is his collaboration with the Swedish group Bob Hund. The vitality and mutual curiosity was tangible when the members of Sonic Youth played ad hoc during a week at the Ystad Museum of Art in the autumn 2000. There they met widely varied representatives of free improvisation, including Sven-Åke Johansson, Mats Gustafsson, David Stackenäs and Lindha Svantesson. Johansson's almost ritualistic kettle drum rhythms added new aural aspects to the powerfully driven American play. One example of the energy in these encounters is heard in the Jim O'Rourke-Thurston Moore-Mats Gustafsson trio (Diskaholics anonymous trio; Crazy Wisdom CW 005, 2000), recorded during a few concentrated hours one late evening in the Ystad Museum of Art's aula.
No one predicts the future. Especially not now. We are in the midst of a soundscape whose horizon is yet not in sight. Still, I have a constant, growing and powerful feeling that we are part of something totally new in sound, improvisation and music.
(Translation: Sven H.E. Borei)