Review: The Thing

The Thing – Mats Gustafsson – tenor, baritone saxes; Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – bass; Paal Nilssen-Love – drums
(Vortex, Tuesday 30 November 2010 -2nd night of a 2-day residency); review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

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The Nordic trio, The Thing, with their fresh, wild and powerful concept have been established for over 10 years. Inspired by Don Cherry’s portfolio, they have also linked up with like-minded musicians such as saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Joe McPhee to perform and record. The individual members have occasionally played together in London, but appearances as a full trio have been elusive, so this overdue visit was worth the wait, particularly as their music is continuing to evolve.

They all took to the stage in black T-shirts, I noticed at least one was from Ruby’s Barbeque in Austin, Texas. Incongruous attire, somehow, for a night when eyes which drifted could also see the snow billowing outside under the lights of Gillett Square. But if the eyes were receiving conflicting images, the ears were caught up in a true conversation in sound. One definition has it that sounds are ‘mechanical vibrations transmitted by an elastic medium.’ This phrase could also sum up The Thing’s eclecticism and open-mindedness. The Thing can swing from raw, ruthless jazz or punk to a meditation on what can be achieved on a single instrument – Gustafsson’s excursions on baritone were particularly masterly.

All three maintained a vital tension throughout both sets, never flagging or letting the musical possibilities pass them by. It was an interesting combination – two natural front men, Gustafsson on reeds – animated, robotically wrestling with his venerable bari, and Nilssen-Love on drums, physically economical in his movements, yet thudding out a massive sound – with Håker Flaten’s bass blending, almost invisibly, as it does with Atomic (where he and Nilssen-Love form the rhythm section), to give a depth and soft edge to their harsher dynamics. It works beautifully.

They got off to a blistering start – it was ‘roar and roll’ from the off, with Gustafsson’s bellicose, rasping and Nilssen-Love’s caustic clattering. They would drift in to almost silent passages, with Håker Flaten’s bow determinedly puttering on his strings by the bridge of his double bass, butterfly touches from Gustafsson on the saxophone keys and Nilssen-Love’s goat bell and brushes mingling atmospherically with light cymbal work. They broke out of a repeated rising three-note figure with manic energy and a raw, rapid fire delivery, which saw the rhythm department paying dues to Elvin Jones, and effervescent runs from Gustafsson, alternating on tenor. They took on the pace and acoustics of a steam train, with Nilssen-Love in the engine-room reminiscent of O. Winston Link’s monochrome images of thundering locomotives, pulling all aboard for the journey.

Gustafsson laughingly described their collaboration as “one more distorted misunderstanding”, but in reality it was quite the opposite: a series of sonic jumps, clear and precisely stated. The Thing really were just the thing – for an icy night in Dalston!

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