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Barry Guy & Mats Gustafsson – Sinners, Rather than Saints

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Sinners, rather than Saints is only the fourth meeting on record of English bassist-composer Barry Guy and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson over almost two decades, and for that alone this vinyl-only release on Lithuanian imprint No Business should be more than a curio. The duo format is an interesting one, which the bassist previously visited with Evan Parker on a pair of LPs for the SAJ and Jazz & Now labels, but apart from a surface similarity of instrumentation, Sinners is a different animal. At this point in his career, Gustafsson’s mettle seems firmly planted in damaged punk-jazz fist-pumping with The Thing, a meaty, Nordic heir apparent to the Wuppertal axis of free improvisation. Guy, on the other hand, is a painter of lush sonorities on pedal-assisted five-string double bass, and though his lines can be scumbled and frantic, texture and orchestration are among the first-reached tools in his arsenal.

Gustafsson opens the set on alto flutophone, a delicate ocarina-like metallic warble offset by col legno harmonics and open-string rattle below the bridge. Guy’s rhythmic wood and metal knocks provide a deep backing for the reedman’s flight, which quickly peels paint before returning to whispery depths. It’s a hell of an overture, though the bassist’s one man orchestra of excited strings is considerably more colorful than his partner’s screaming reeds. Guy’s solo “Odyssey” is an extraordinarily romantic poem of technique and physicality, fleet plucks reminiscent of a tonal Derek Bailey underpinned by electronic drones. It’s possible that with such essays, Guy might be the Eberhard Weber of contemporary improvisation, the way his pedal-fleshed chords softly splay. On “Sleep Leaper” he builds a mass of multiple stops on the low end whilst furiously working reedy, high ponticello in delicate but ferocious play of grand gesture and teasing detail, a sound to behold. Fitting such a solo is dedicated to the painter Alan Davie, a longtime friend to several UK improvisers.

It’s unfortunate that the duos don’t hold quite the same majesty, for Guy’s ability to find nearly every sonic nook on the bass is nothing if not a boon to conversation. But a spar for tenor and bass like “Flisk the Thrapple” finds most of the risks taken at lower decibel levels as Guy’s arco scrapes and contrasts of muted and colorful pizzicato encircle Gustafsson’s brutish squawk. By the last cut, the pair seems to have found common footing, morose baritone trudge and slap-tonguing mating with athletic bowing and flying horsehair. Settling into low, steely lines, one is reminded of the blackened snow of Peter Brötzmann’s 14 Love Poems (FMP, 1984), a romance of inscrutable grit. While hard-won and mostly at odds, Sinners is a worthwhile document of two of Europe’s most estimable improvisers.

~ Clifford Allen

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11 comments for “Barry Guy & Mats Gustafsson – Sinners, Rather than Saints

  1. Fair reveiw. The solos are gorgeous, but “Frogging” set the bar high….

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  2. clifford –
    not to be too picky, but i count more than 4 recordings by these two. Off the top of my head:
    -Mouth Eating Trees (w/Lovens)
    -Frogging (duo)
    -You forget to answer (w/Strid)
    -Tarfala (s/Strid)
    -Nu Ensemble (9-piece group, mats’ comps/leader)
    -this new one…

    I haven’t heard this one yet, but it’s on my short list to order. The Takayanagi Archive box kinda broke my cd/record budget for the time being, but well worth it…

    Posted by Rob Cambre | cheap custom term paper.
  3. oh, and as a post-script I was in/around Chicago a lot in the summer of ’97 and caught an amazing series of gigs from Mats + Barry – one at Unity Temple in Oak Park that featured solos + duos plus collaboration with their respective spouses (Lotta Melin-dance and Maya Homburger playing baroque violin pieces), the other was 2 sets of hardcore trio aktion with Raymond Strid at the Empty Bottle… that one was truly titanic and looms large in my memory of special gigs.

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  4. There is also the quartet with Crispell. As far as recent work, Tarfala is a lot better than the duos here.
    For my interests the golden period for Mats was the early work with Guy and Christmann.
    Mats has different interests now, and there is nothing wrong with that – it just doesn’t gel as well with Barry anymore.

    Posted by damon_smith | September 3, 2009, 1:29 pm
  5. good catch damon, i knew i’d forgotten one…

    the stuff with christmann is indeed top rank… those 2 Vario-34 discs feature one helluva band (lehn, c.munthe on guitar, lovens…). Glad i copped ’em both when they were around.

    Posted by Rob Cambre | September 3, 2009, 3:53 pm
  6. The duo with Christmann is a masterpiece, I couldn’t be more opposed to the “New Standard” idea, be it The Bad Plus, Mehldau or the Thing (I love all three of their playing individually) but that one album almost makes up for it!!!!

    Posted by damon_smith | September 5, 2009, 11:18 pm
  7. The new trio double album with Vandermark/Guy/Sanders is really great. It works in a really unexpected way and is one of the best things I have heard this year.

    Posted by damon_smith | September 9, 2009, 10:42 pm
  8. Still haven’t opened the shrinkwrap on that – Intakt has been putting out a lot of nice things this year, if I could only keep up!

    Posted by clifford | September 9, 2009, 10:54 pm
  9. I would do it soon, for sure put it ahead of the package you just got from me!

    Posted by damon_smith | September 10, 2009, 12:02 am
  10. damon –
    yes indeed, that duo with Christmann is truly outstanding. As I recall, it came out during a time when the CD output was really kicking into high gear, so a lot of great discs got kinda lost in the shuffle or didn’t get the attention they could/should have. That one was also an Okka limited, and I never could really see why some titles made their limited release and others regular releases. Didn’t seem to be a consistent method behind that.

    On a related note, i noticed on Mats’ site that he is playing with Christmann more lately – and in a trio with Lovens no less. Of the guys of his generation Christmann is one that hasn’t really made it over to the U.S. much as far as I know. Too bad, as he is one of the great and I’m sure a lot of organizers (myself included) would happily rise to the occasion.

    I’ve got a wild gig here coming up next week – get this cast: Donald Miller, Bhob Rainey, Joe McPhee, Michael Zerang, Helen Gillet (N.O. cellist)…

    Posted by Rob Cambre | September 18, 2009, 4:18 pm
  11. should read “one of the greats”….

    Posted by Rob Cambre | September 18, 2009, 4:19 pm

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