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The Boston Phoenix Atomic Bombs

Ken and Mats blast off.

By Ed Hazell

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Free jazz of the kind made by saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson is most often compared to hurricanes and volcanoes. But it's much closer to atomic fission or the forces of quantum physics, in which the tiniest elements unleash unimaginable energy. On Blow Horn (Okkadisk), the two 34-year-old saxophonists join forces with a Chicago rhythm section of bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Steve Hunt to form a band they call FJF for one of the most high-powered free improvisations in recent memory. And they were paired again with a Swedish rhythm team, the AALY Trio, for an overpowering, exultant first set last Sunday night at Green Street Grill.

The two horn players may hail from different continents -- Vandermark from Chicago and Gustafsson from Stockholm -- but they have much in common. Vandermark is a mover in Chicago's jazz and improv scene. Besides leading his own groups, he replaced the late Hal Russell in the NRG Ensemble and he works in DKV, a trio with percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Kessler. He performs and records prolificly; he's also organized a series at Chicago's Empty Bottle club. And he holds his own with more experienced players, as the recent hard-swinging CD Fred Anderson/DKV Trio (Okkadisk) attests.

Like Vandermark, Gustafsson has been marked by his elders. He's recorded well over 20 albums and performed with an impressive roster of European free-improv veterans -- drummers Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens, bassist Barry Guy, trombonist Gunther Christmann. Gustafsson is also a key player back home in the active, though rarely recognized, improv scene in Sweden, which includes bassist Peter Janson and drummer Kjell Nordeson of the AALY Trio, who ably supported the two horn players at Green Street.

The music on Blow Horn is free improvisation of a very personal sort. American and European new-music influences have criss-crossed the Atlantic so often that Vandermark and Gustafsson can merge their respective traditions quite easily. Power and energy coexist with minutely detailed manipulations of time and timbre. You might think one would exclude the other, but these players' reflexes are so fast and their ears so keen that even when the music is flat-out explosive, there are tiny shifts in sound and sympathetic interactions at the white hot center.

The album blasts off with "Dedication," as exhausting a blitzkrieg as anyone has recorded in a long, long time. Gustafsson fires a stream of abrupt stuttering phrases at a machine-gun rate while Vandermark rails away at the highest end of his horn with harsh, hoarse wails. The music doesn't develop so much as it melts and flows into new shapes.

Not everything is at this blowout level. "Biomass" is a slow piece full of low tones from Vandermark's bass clarinet and Gustafsson's baritone sax. It's still, yet charged with anticipation, like dawn on an alien planet. "Blow Horn for Service" evokes the blues through Vandermark's raw sound coupled with Kessler's allusions to walking-bass lines and Gustafsson's steely, unsentimental tenor declamations.

Each saxophonist's willingness to go for broke every time he puts a reed in his mouth made Sunday night's first set a cathartic and harrowing experience. This line-up, which has an album due on Silkheart in March, played compositions (as opposed to what Gustafsson and Vandermark do on Blow Horn), including a cover of a tune by the ultra-obscure Philadelphia saxophonist Jimmy Stewart. In the close confines of Green Street, Stewart's "Unknown Title" was overpowering. Vandermark oscillated wildly between registers of his tenor, blasting out short, abrupt motifs and paraphrases of the melody to build up an almost unbearable tension. Vandermark's "Unit Character," a dedication to the late saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, opened with a riveting saxophone duo that was one of the highlights of the set. He and Gustafsson jostled and circled around each other in a blistering exchange of flinty riffs, startling changes in dynamics, and rhythmically charged pops, clucks, and shrieks that jumbled together in a bewildering succession. The volume, though not the emotional intensity, fell off during bassist Janson's unaccompanied introduction to Charlie Haden's "Song for Che." But the saxophonists called down the spirits of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright when they entered, railing with righteous fire.

This was a set where the sheer force of the music convinced you that you were hearing new voices with something important to say. Both Vandermark and Gustafsson are among the best of their generation. As good as they are now, we can expect even better in the future.


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