Barry Guy-Mats Gustafsson

Duo Barry Guy & Mats Gustafsson

BARRY GUY Double bass
MATS GUSTAFSSON Tenor & baritone saxophones, flute, fluteophone, french flageolet


The following interview took place in the studios of WNUR-FM, Evanston/Chicago, on June 18, 1997. Barry Guy and Mats Gustafsson performed live on the air on WNUR's jazz show, collaborating with percussionist Michael Zerang and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and they then joined John Corbett for a roundtable discussion of their work.

John Corbett: How did your working partnership start? You've played in different contexts, in a trio with Raymond Strid and in a trio with Paul Lovens, and pretty extensively as a duo. How did you meet?

Barry Guy: I guess it goes back to '92, "Solo '92". This was something that Mats and various other people set up in Sweden, they organized this very, very interesting festival where everybody had a half hour slot to do whatever they wanted. And as well as playing their solo, they could bring other musicians in. It was a marvelous experiment because there was this cross-referencing of musics and meeting of a lot of people. We played, and the fireworks happened within about one microsecond of meeting each other. It was the whole spatial thing about the music, about where the music happens, how it happens, the parameters were all in place. So it was an amazing, electrically charged music right from the start. Since then, we've made every opportunity to play together, whatever
the circumstance.

JC: There are a lot of those parameters that you share, and some that you complement each other with, ones that are different. Mats, in interviews you've talked about energy and flow, and one thing that's clear in this relationship is the sense of shared interest in moving energies around and making things flow from one to another.

Mats Gustafsson: Yeah, I'm thinking of the word "phrase", like phrasing the energy. It's a lot about phrasing in time, sudden phrases, energy blasts. Energy and flow are important parameters for both of us, I think.

JC: Articulation?

MG: Articulation, yes!

BG: It's how the music happens in the space. You're aware of various levels of energy. There's the possibility that you're hearing the slow thing, but you might not be playing it. So in fact you can step down to all sorts of levels – to the slow, to the fast, to the ultrafast, to the ultrasoft, to the ultraloud. The thing is actually getting yourself on line to almost pre-hear it. This is the thing that my partner Maya Homburger and I sometimes talk about, the idea of osteophonic hearing, hearing through the bones. Your ears are in some ways your least efficient receptors, because they're stuck on the side of your face, on top of your head. But you have sound all around you, you have musicians all around, and your bones have cavities. So it's quite possibile that you're receiving lots of information long before it's actually gone through the little canals in there and into the brain. People always ask: How do you do that so quickly, how do you end up suddenly with the same note, or why do you end with a click? There's so many things going on in your head, the whole thing is making a conclusive direction. It's being aware of what's happening in the space and what's happening between you. This is why for me it's the most important music, because of the communication. It's a socialist music, if you like, because you are trusting each other, putting yourself out in the open completely, saying this is where the language is, this is how we exchange with each other. As long as you don't build barriers, this music is a prime example of how it can go. Perhaps all politicians should play free music.

JC: Seems unlikely at this point ... we have a saxophone playing president, but I'm not sure I'd want to hear him playing free music. The idea of "feeling it in your bones", it's a very interesting notion. The palpability of the music, the sense that, even as a listener, not participating except in the act of hearing the music, one is aware of a certain physicality. It's a very physical music for both of you, you move around a lot as performers, which is a challenge for you, Barry, since you've got this big slab of wood in front of you.

BG: People have asked: Why don't you stand still and play the damned thing? Well, I did that for many years in a symphony orchestra. But I've picked up a lot from working with dancers. The way energy is passed between bodies. I worked with Bob Cohan, who was previously with Martha Graham, so I was very familiar with Martha Graham technique. To see the way these dancers negotiated and articulated lifts and all the various movements, you could actually see them preparing energy, to make the lift seamless without falling over on each other. As I was playing on stage with them, I tried to understand what they were doing. I can't say the whole of my technique is based on dance, but there is an aspect of concentrating the energy to where you need it at the precise moment. It's allowing yourself to be prepared at all times to go between the big push and the ballet shoes up in the air. You're re-weighting your body to bring some of the sounds out. When Mats is playing the baritone, that's a big instrument as well, and actually to get those sounds to come out of the instrument, there's all this mechanism around the mouth and tongue and airflows, and it's obvious that some of those sounds wouldn't come out without the way you negotiate it physically. If you were standing there like a statue, it wouldn't work.

MG: Moving really helps. Free improvised music and quick things, it's very integrated for me. My movement is a really important part of the music – it's music, as well. It's kind of interesting, 'cause I've also had this history of working with dancers since years back. And of course you get very inspired and pick up things.

BG: The bass is, as you say, a big instrument, but I try to make it as invisible as possible. It's a glorious slab of wood, a resonating box, and there's a lot to get out of it. If I can do my Zen thing and think of it as a grain of sand with very, very hard edges, you can actually feel the instrument, but in a minute form, so you're not thinking my god, there's this great lump of wood in front of me. If you can make that evaporate, it's a cliché, but it's the voice then. You're just using methods by which you can communicate.

JC: The word I think of when I think of this combination of motion and articulation is "gesture". It seems that, if you're thinking about some bowing technique or some blowing technique that requires you to move a certain way, the carry through, which you might not hear as a sound, but you heard it when it was being articulated as the sound, and it only sounded that way because the gesture would finish the way that it does, later. The beginnings and ends of gestures, which you might not hear, are important parts of the music. Like dampening certain strings in the piano, playing a run past them without sounding them, one gets a different attack than if one simply left that note out.

BG: That's a flow, there's an energy that's constant. You're perceiving something in between those notes, a different rhythmic feeling. It's a whole different relationship with the body.

JC: You're both soloists, as well, so that part of it applies to solo techniques, but it also applies to how you move energies between a player and another player in a space. That throws up a much more complex set of relationships and possibilities.

The day after this interview, Gustafsson and Guy extensively explored those relationships and possibilities, exchanging energies in an afternoon of recordings at AirWave Studios in Chicago. Listening back later, the duo felt a strong connection between the recordings they made that day and their trio disc with percussionist Raymond Strid, You Forget To Answer (Maya 9601), and therefore chose the title Frogging (as well as the Latinate frog-name track titles) in slippery reference to the frog-catching metaphor used in the trio record's liner notes.

John Corbett

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Reviews Frogging

Spontaneous creative music, i.e. 'free jazz', usually tends toward high-energy output and daredevil antics. The appeal is like that of theater, generated in the immediacy of the moment and sometimes the physicality of the creation. The charms of spontaneous music are often lost in the conversion from 'live' event to recorded disc.

Nothing though seems lost on this recorded duo between Mats Gustafsson and Barry Guy. The Swede Gustafsson has continued to generate excellent recordings these past six years, playing an array of saxophones, flutes and the self-designed fluteophone. His association with other creative musicians include Chicago’s Ken Vandermark in the FJF quartet, Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Octet/Tentet, and his own band the AALY trio which featured Vandermark on Stumble (1998), Hidden In The Stomach (1998), and Live At The Glenn Miller Cafe (1999). Last year, Gustafsson released the jaw-dropping Windows: The Music Of Steve Lacy, a solo tribute to one of jazz’s greatest soloists.

Teamed with London-born bassist Barry Guy, Gustafsson has found his most sympathetic collaborator yet. Guy, almost twenty years his senior, has led a dual existence in both classical and improvisational music. He founded and is the artistic director of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and has worked with a who’s-who of jazz improvisers including Marilyn Crispell, Evan Parker, Bill Dixon, Paul Plimley and performed with the long standing trio of Evan Parker, Paul Lytton and Guy.

This date, recorded in 1997 for Guy’s imprint Maya Recordings, follows up the Guy/Gustafsson trio recording Mouth Eating Trees And Related Activities with percussionist Paul Lovens. Like the Trees disc, the interaction between the musicians is the key to the recording. Guy plays an alternating supporting and leading role here, eschewing timekeeping for conversation. While much of the improvisation is, physical music-making, none of it is noisy. Guy cajoles sounds from his bass much like Cecil Taylor exercises a keyboard. He works all the angles, strumming, thumping, and sawing notes. Gustafsson for his part is constantly creating a new vocabulary for the saxophone (or whatever horn he picks up), leaning just as much on the vocal qualities his breath as blown notes. His growling mouthpiece and extended horn techniques make his horn the equivalent of a prepared guitar or piano. With the sound of Gustafsson’s horn, you get a sense of truly human expression.

The recording is also unlike many spontaneous creative jazz recordings, in that the listener has a desire to repeat the act of listening to this disc. Even though the tunes are far from melodic or transcribe-able, this free session of jazz bears repeat visits.

Mark Corroto

Intriguing. This disc is a counterpart to Obliquities, Guy's 1994 duets with his longtime trio partner Evan Parker. But Mats Gustafsson, who like Parker plays tenor but also baritone sax, flute, fluteophone and French flageolet, is an even more acerbic player than Parker. His playing is even farther removed from conventional reed playing than Guy's more prominent foil, although it clearly shows the influence of Parker: Gustafsson indeed represents the post-Parker generation of reedmen. Meanwhile, this disc highlights how much Guy's bass contributes to the distinctive sound of Parker/Guy/Lytton, and how powerfully the bassist drives his mates.

It is often difficult to tell which instrument Gustafsson is playing, but on the opener, Bufo punctatis (all the tracks are scientific names for frogs) he seems to be on baritone. Powered by Guy, he gibbers and squeaks, chirps and mutters, clicks and swirls. It is a bravura show for those who have already digested Parker and his fellows, and the frogs just keep coming. I think Hyla pickeringii is on tenor – sometimes Gus sounds a bit like Charles Gayle, but there is less inexorable forward motion.

Scapiopus couchii features long tones, unmistakably on fluteophone (although Gayle does sometimes play his tenor up here in nosebleed range, so …). Gus clicks and screams, Guy strums and plucks on the rousing Lythodytes ricordii (a piece for baritone). Discoglossidae is almost delicate, although Gus' fluteophone (flageolet?) overblowing creates a jet effect over Guy's breathtaking peripatetics.

The real standout is the longest track, Hyla gratiosa. The full range of effects – and the range is wide – of both players comes through here. Gus sounds more like Parker here than anywhere else, whirling and swirling, but still in a gruffer and rougher fashion. Later he switches to a whistling instrument, and to a goldmine of inventiveness.

I'll tell you, friends, this is highly unconventional, experimental music which never ceases to fascinate. Gustafsson doesn't play notes very often, and neither he nor Guy are interested in conventional time or scales – but this is fascinating music. For the adventurous soul, Frogging is a first-class excursion into new textures and sounds.

Robert Spencer

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Technical rider

1 small table for bows, brushes, sticks (Barry Guy)

Amplifier: one bass amp and 15" speaker (or combo) of very good quality e.g. Hartke or Gallien Krüger, SWP or Trace Elliott.

If the venue is supportive of acoustic music, the duo will only need amplification for the bass.

Otherwise small PA system with microphone for the saxophone and possibly monitors etc. is needed.