Saturday, 27 February 2010

Nils Petter Molvaer @ The Sage...

A blog with a time lag, nevertheless quite excusable in the circumstances. Although the gig in question took place last Sunday, almost a week ago, the week has been dominated by the sudden and sad demise of Smokey ('Felix'), our venerable cat. This is not the time or place for details, but I mention the event simply because it has cast such a dark shadow over the week.

The last time I saw Molvaer was on the 'Khmer' tour, playing with a large and extremely loud band at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival. That would probably make it 1997 or 1998. My good friend Andrew was with me that time, and we were both blown away the group's rock-style presence and power. Good as those memories are, the trumpeter's career has subsequently gone off the boil, a series of albums in the same vein as Khmer rarely reaching the same heights and showing little evolution or development. Last year's Hamada was definitely a return to form, it's controlled soundscapes gracefully unfolding around strong melodic threads from the East. Perhaps a sign that Molvaer has reached some sort of cross-roads, I went to this gig hopeful for another Glasgow, but in truth didn't really know what to expect.

From the outset it was clear that Sunday's gig was going to be a more stripped down affair, though no less intense (or at times claustrophobic) than that great Glasgow show. Playing in my favourite Hall 2 at the Sage, the group consisted of just three men and several Apple Macs. Anybody who knows me will be aware of my devotion to the cult of the Mac, and it's fair to say that both the venue and the hardware made me predisposed to like this show. Starting with processed trumpet and looping vocals (sung into the trumpet bell by Molvaer and passed through his trusty Mac), guitarist Stian Westerhus then crouched and produced deep glitchy bass notes by touching together the contact ends of a pair of wired leads. The effect was slightly unsettling, and somewhat add odds with Molvaer's own spiritually reaching lyricism. Drummer Audun Kleive stood patiently in the wings, the stage bathed in darkness and eyes drawn to the (again Mac generated) visual backdrop. When the drummer did eventually join the party the music immediately shifted from ethereal Hassell-ian 'Fourth World' to the dense, raw and extremely dark side of post-Agartha Miles.

Not a bad place to be, and with Westerhus refusing to play anything resembling a 'lick' it also showed in Molvaer far more avant-garde vitality than previous formulaic efforts. This concert consisted of a single piece, unfolding over 95 incident packed minutes. The visuals often responded to the pace of the music, Persian tapestries and moving grids of molten lava providing a complementary experience. For sure there were longeurs as the musicians pulled back to re-group their collective energies, and some passages undoubtedly went on in the same vein for far too long without revealing anything of any great interest.

There's a great 50-60 minute album in this material, and as it would happen, Hamada is its title. What you wouldn't get from listening to this music at home though would be the insight into the processes that lie behind it's making, Presented in person, loud and close-up with visuals and all, Molvaer's provocative and highly charged music gains an important context. Several agitated audience members seemed to leave early, perhaps disappointed not to be hearing the Nordic folk of compatriot Jan Garbarek. Another apparently fell victim to the strobe-like effects projected onto the backdrop during a particularly grungey passage.

Even for somebody like myself who has heard Hamada several times, there were many surprises here and the show was far from predictable. Westerhus's bowed guitar sounded truly cello-like (an entirely different technique to Raoul Bjorkenheim's brutalism), Kleive's machine-like rhythms hit you like a truck, and Molvaer's command of his effects rack is as much a part of his musical persona as it is with Jon Hassell. The group's forays into abstract territories are improvised music of the very best kind. Completely in the service of his lovingly nurtured sound-scapes and utterly free of self-indulgence, there was a logic running through the performance which was unmistakeable.

At one point the angle at which we sat saw Kleive apparently grow a halo from the visual backdrop, something which Louise thought was far from coincidental (given his Jesus-like features). When I told her after the gig that Kleive once played with A-ha, we were truly talking of a revelation.

This gig's depth charge-like impact makes it seem better and better as I reflect back after what has been a testing week. Top marks to Molvaer, who goes back on to my imaginary 'A' list, and with little else of this quality going on in the region at the moment it looks like a strong contender for the performance of 2010. I've been asked by the magazine to cover the Festival in March, but only Dan Berglund's Tonbruket really stands out at this stage. With an open mind and wide-open ears, I'll prepare to be surprised...

Fred Grand.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Ex & Brass Unbound @ The Sage...

I wasn't going to bother going to this gig. I knew a couple of albums by The Ex (the two with Tom Cora), and I hardly thought it would be the kind of gig where either Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson would get much of a chance to show what they can do. Factor in my now distant relationship to the punk era, and considerations of Louise's need not to hear this kind of thing, and it looked eminently missable.

That was until a former workmate called and asked if I wanted to go (I was tempted to say former anarchist punk, a bit of an 'in' joke, particularly as he now drives a rather beautiful Audi estate car...) He's one of the few people I know who would even have heard of The Ex, and the chance for a catch-up over some music was in the end a more than sufficient lure. So. it became a quiet night-in for Louise and a noisy night out for me.

Using The Sage's Hall 2, I was surprised by the respectable turn-out for this event. Support was provided by Zun Zun Egui, whose collision of Krautrock, Afro-beat and hardcore was interesting if not compelling. After 30 minutes they'd been through their repertoire, and for the last 15 of their set they'd really outstayed their welcome. It was The Ex & Brass Unbound that most people wanted to hear.

Getting Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark onto the same stage at the same time isn't that difficult, and their cutting-edge retro free-jazz (the contradiction is deliberate) is about the best that there is. Ken has been keen to distance himself from past rowdy DIY-punk associations for some time now though, and you won't hear him pushing his discs with The Flying Luttenbachers as high watermarks of his career. I remember talking to him about those days several years ago and he seemed more than a little embarrassed. The Ex seem to have a unique pull though, his pal Gustafsson is clearly less reticent, and this being a special event to mark the group's 30th anniversary Ken clearly decided 'what the heck'. Filling out the brass section (and right at the opposite end of the stage) were Wolter Wierbos and Roy Paci, more of whom later.

When the gig finally got underway it was divine mayhem. The Ex did exactly what they do best, rough and ready and extremely loose, their energy actually out-did the horns for much of the time. Vandermark and Gustafsson huffed and puffed, and despite being two of the most lethal saxophonists on the planet they struggled to penetrate the wall of sound created by these like-able Dutch dilettantes. It wasn't all down to excessive amplification either. The triple fuzz guitar attack was really too close to the frequency of the baritone and tenor saxes, and when Ken got out his clarinet he was a metaphorical needle in a haystack. Much of the time he looked disinterested (even bored), but as the evening progressed he found his feet, and a way into the mayhem.

Wierbos and Paci fared better at their end of the stage, their rasping brass attack really enhancing the group's sound. Arrangements were basic to say the least, real back-of-a-beer-mat stuff, but that's part of the group's charm. Could you really imagine them with a slick horn section punching out the riffs? I even recognised two of the pieces ('State of Shock' and 'Hidegen Fujnak A Szelek' from Scrabbling At The Lock), and this led to a vague feeling of smugness that I won't try to condone. As the gig wore on there were small chinks for Ken and Mats to cut through the din, and hats off to The Ex for sticking to their guns.

It was almost a shame to have to get into that Audi and drive away...

Fred Grand