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...And Now for Some Thing Completely Different

The Thing with Joe McPhee Play San Antonio June 15th (Preview)
Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH

The D.I.Y. ethic has been the talk of the jazz community lately. There are times in my work on Nextbop when I ask myself, "What would Schatz do?" What can be done on the ground level to grow a scene, my scene in particular? I've noted before that my connection to San Antonio's quite strong local jazz scene could use some work but the scene itself could also look to see some growth and diversity. When thinking about my local scene, I don't often think about energetic, Scandinavian free jazz trios rolling through, but this Friday, The Thing of Paul Nilsson-Love on drums, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass, and Mats Gustafsson on saxs, reeds, and electronics with New York saxophonist Joe Reed in tow are stopping by what is essentially a lot next to The Monterrey (an amaaaazing restaurant in Southtown) on their Boots Boobs and Booze Tour (Nilsson-Love loves the name, but the rest of the band are sort of iffy about it). I recently had a conversation with KRTU music director Kory Cook about everything involved with putting a show like this together.

While the operation may at first glance seem ramshackle, a great deal of care was put into this show, which isn't all that new of an idea in the jazz scene. Aforementioned KRTU music director and San Antonio drummer-on-call Kory Cook and occasional bandmate John Mata (who also seems to have a lot music and art-wise on his plate about town) are the ones responsible for throwing this thing. Backed by the arts foundation Sala Diaz, the June 15th show taking place at The Warehouse on 1119 S. St. Mary's St at 7pm is a bit of a rarity for San Antonio, though not necessarily in South Texas, and certainly not so recently."I got a call from [Pedro G. Moreno] who heads Epistrophy Arts in Austin who's been doing this for like fifteen years-- bringing artists like Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann (European improvisers basically is who he focuses on), John Butcher, Paul Nilsson-Love... P.G. is very good at what he does, he lives in Austin. He's actually inspiring to me because over the years I've been at some of his shows and been really surprised at some of the turnout. All these people will come out the woodwork that you've never seen before that appreciate this kind of music. There's definitely a group of people who are into it. He emailed me and said, 'Would you be interested in helping bring The Thing to San Antonio; since they're coming to Austin, you should bring them to San Antonio.' And he gave me Paul Nilsson-Love's email so I then heard from Paul, the drummer, who asked if there was any interest in it and I told him sure before I had a venue. I figured I'd let them come do their thing and I'd find a venue in the process." That venue eventually became The Warehouse, a space next to The Monterrey (the grilled cheese sandwich on Texas toast with the peppercorn bacon, oh my Gooooood), about which Cook says, "We're basically turning a space that's not a performance space into a performance space... I'm hoping to get as many people, not for the sake of filling up the place, but really to expose people to this music the way I was exposed to it fifteen years ago when I went to The Off Center when I saw [Filipino drummer] Susie Ibarra with Asif Sahar, her husband, who did this amazing music... That was an amazing show. I was in Austin and noticed that here's this place called The Off Center. There's all these people sitting down on the floor, BYOB, and I'm like this is the kind of venue where you need to do this in. That's initially why I wanted to do this in a place that wasn't a bar or a venue."

Space was a rather important aspect when it comes to this. The environment that it creates; who it'll bring; how to stage something like this-- all these things are connected. "I guess just because it seems like that particular crowd who would want to see that type of performance may be more into that sort of friendly, home atmosphere like you're going to see this show but you're going to go hang out with your friends in the park and see this show rather than 'Oh, we gotta dress and worry about drinking shitty beer and having people blow smoke in our face...' It kinda goes with the whole atmosphere..."

And the music itself? I gotta be honest, I try to stay abreast of a lot of music but the longer I work at this, the more I learn about how much I don't know. Fortunately, I work with Kory who keeps up with what's going down with Scandinavian trios who play free jazz like it's punk rock. "It's a modern jazz combo but there's a little bit more to it because they don't play standards, they don't play well known material. It's all totally original. A lot of it is just spontaneous creative music. I would call it a creative improvised ensemble, horn-based... The way they play is almost athletic. I think of Mats Gustafsson as a saxophone athlete-- in terms of breath, power, everything he's adding to the instrument is athletic. It's quite an athletic group."

Learning about the group is nothing a YouTube binge or a stream of their latest album featuring Neneh Cherry on NPR (who isn't present for the US dates of this tour but rejoins the group at the end of the month in Slovenia for the European dates of the tour [of an entirely different name], details at Nilssen-Love's site) couldn't solve, but it's not all that necessary. "That's the beauty. You really don't need to know anything. I've always felt that way about music-- the less you know, the better. Unfortunately, guys like us sit around and learn about this stuff so we go with a critical eye and we're hearing the music in a whole different way than people that I want to go to this show who don't know anything about this band. That's what I really want to see. I want to see young people (musicians or not, it doesn't matter) be totally turned on by the energy of a band like that, because it's so much better than your average rock and roll band, y'know?"

"Paul Nilsson-Love... he's got punk rock spirit, y'know? He's a madman, one of the most amazing drummers anyone could ever look at and watch. He's a hilarious dude. He comes more from a punk rock aesthetic of the music. I think that's where a lot of it comes from... But those other guys, they're like aliens. They're unreal... I have this ex-girlfriend who refers to it as 'suspiciously noise'. Whenever I talk about that music and she hears me listening to it, she's like 'this is suspiciously noise' and I'm like, one side of the coin you can say that, the other side, this is simply so freak, it's like a circus act. You get people who are able to do things that very few people are able to do elsewhere which is play the saxophone like that. That's a whole other conversation, right? I mean, the way people play music and how it's perceived and its intentions and everything, when you see someone like Mats Gustafsson on the saxophone (that goes back to what I was saying about athletics), I've never seen anybody be able to use breath, and use his tongue, and his mouth, and his hands, and be able to play these things that, you know? How many saxophonists have we had in jazz or in music since the turn of the Twentieth century, there are thousands, y'know? You get someone like Mats Gustafsson, he's singled out. He's just standing out there on his own, out on this prairie playing. That's the way I imagine it. There's no one that can touch him in certain aspects, you know? And then you start to wonder like, here's John Coltrane [Kory pulls up a Coltrane ballad playing on the air at the moment in a very well, coincidentally-timed cue], can Mats Gustafsson play like John Coltrane? Like, did he? Probably? Like he probably borrowed something thing from [him]. Is he better than John Coltrane? Hell no. But is this more interesting? Is it more [adventurous?] Has Mats Gustaffson taken with jazz what John Coltrane would have wanted him to do? [Ed: Is he doing this where it needs to be right now in the place of the genre?] Exactly, which may not be a safe place... But really to me, it's just a very jaw-dropping experience because of the technique, the energy, the ability, the heart and soul that's poured into it, it's really like nothing else you've ever seen. It kind of reminds me of, who's the guy on the indie circuit that plays the big bari? [Ed: Colin Stetson.] Yeah, kind of like that in sense of, like, freak ability, you know?"

Ultimately, this is a show unlike much of anything San Antonio has generally seen. A little texture will be added to our biggest small town in America (a term I apparently didn't coin but has been used about San Antonio so often that it's difficult to determine to whom to attribute the line). Kory's equally weirdly awesome trio, The Whale (who don't play together nearly as often as I'd like so this is a bit of a treat), are opening. This sounds like one of those kind of shows that's maybe too cool for our lame city which is in itself pretty cool.

Once again, be sure to check out The Thing's new album with Neneh Cherry, The Cherry Thing, streaming this week at NPR and available for purchase everywhere June 19th.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.