The Thing

NAC Back Stage, Ottawa ON, June 28

The ThingNAC Back Stage, Ottawa ON, June 28
Photo: Chris Bubinas
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"The world is, of course, changing," said Mats Gustafsson, the Swedish saxophonist, "and it's far from equilibrium, I think we can all agree on that…"
 
On Tuesday (June 28), the Thing's brass boss hadn't yet played a note and the NAC Back Stage audience was already in the palm of his hand.
 
"We think the solution is Viking jazz."
 
Which, it turns out, is nothing short of genius musicianship. After 17 years and 23 albums, the Thing were able to back up the thesis undisputed. Songs from 2015 album SHAKE! showcased avant-garde jazz-rock, the sentiment of which seeped into their interpretations of "Perfection" by Ornette Coleman, "Alfie's Theme" by Sonny Rollins and a song they identified as "Alien" that Joe McPhee taught them on a train barrelling from Austria to Croatia.
 
When he wasn't carving out a powerful rhythm that rarely coincided with the bass beat, the Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love used the frayed end of a drumstick to squeal across a skin, rubbed two clicking tambourines together and lightly tapped a gong. With a beet-red and sweating face, Gustafsson popped and smacked his lips on a baritone reed to match his drummer's noisy experiments.
 
They played only seven songs, if you count their second number as two separate tracks. Halfway through, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten's bass carried him out of an Otomo Yoshihide cover and into a wild transition piece where his partners closed their eyes to let him play solo. As grunts and cries escaped his mouth with every frenetic pull at the strings, the stand-up bass appeared to be playing him.
 
Gustafsson was able to create some terrifying squeals with his instruments, and screaming into his sax mic was not even the scariest. Despite his furious playing style, he was a friendly but caustic host. His corrosive wit in the smallest exchange ("If you feel like dancing, don't") or an anecdote kept the afternoon relaxed, even as the free jazz melted minds.

The cacophony and disharmony felt essential, and if the Thing made sounds that hurt, it was because the truth is known to hurt. No one left Back Stage unscathed. Every aspect of the astonishing show — from Gustafsson's conviction that jazz had come from Scandinavia on a Viking longship to the free jazz classics revitalized in ways that evoked the presence of the greats — cast a shadow that future Ottawa Jazz Fest performers will struggle to escape.

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