Apr 22 2019
Fire! at Big Ears Festival 2019: Way down in your bones
I’ve enjoyed some Brötzmann recordings in my time. Hell, the discovery continues into the present day. But I never truly appreciated the man’s artistry or the absolutely power of his sonic delivery until I saw him live. It occurred in a small church in Lexington, KY, out on North Limestone and years before that neighborhood became the darling of the real estate industry. Peter Brötzmann teamed up with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and the way the icy tones of that percussion clashed and melted into the searing heat of Brötzmann’s saxophone was like nothing I’d experienced before. There was an immediacy to his sound that the recorded medium never could accurately relay in its totality. But it was revelatory of more than just pure power. Hearing this music live also illuminated how nimble Brötzmann could be, even on an instrument like bass clarinet, whose sound typically shines as displays of heavy soul, not delicate turns of phrase. That being said, all of that still came secondary to Brötzmann’s ability to brutalize the laws of physics with his saxophone, like he was ripping apart reality at the seams or threatening to obliterate the walls and bring the whole building crashing down.
These thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I watched Fire! perform at The Standard on Friday night. This was my first opportunity to see them live. The raw strength and driving intensity displayed by the trio didn’t come as a surprise. I have a far greater familiarity with the music of Mats Gustaffson and his various Fire! ensembles than I do Brötzmann. Fire! Orchestra is a fixture of my listening routine. I knew what I was getting into when the trio of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin took the stage at midnight. But the live setting meant I would feel the music, that it would pound away at my heart at the same time it was bleeding into my ears. It’s an entirely different experience. And it’s about more than the trio’s devastating power. At times, they enter fugue-like states when the music grows more moody than manic. Their sonic barrage can take on a trance-like quality, a high-intensity hypnosis where volatility becomes the catalyst of expectation and resolution. But, yeah, the best part is feeling when the music shakes the earth beneath the feet. And a packed house at The Standard on Friday night got shook that way, very late into the night.
Fire! released a new album last year. The Hands was a return to the core sound that eventually expanded into their Fire! Orchestra recordings, and it was what they brought to the stage at the stroke of midnight. The Standard is actually a very bright and airy type of venue, one where the sunlight can lead to some pretty opportune ambiance depending on what kind of event is going on. But the festival had no difficulty retrofitting the sonic intensity of Fire! into the space. They partitioned off one section and gave the stage a deliciously claustrophobic feel, making it so that no matter where you stood, the trio’s sonic blows could reach out and smack you. The lights sliced through the air, leading to some strategizing on the best place to stand so they didn’t fry your pupils. Gustafsson, Berthling and Werliin began with a display of patience, slowly building up to the moment when they’d explode into flight. And, eventually, after some electronic effects from Gustafsson ended and his saxophone began, they unleashed everything they had inside. It was as thrilling as their trio recording promised, but, damn, you could feel it in your bones.
This trio’s music gets slotted in the Jazz category for any number of reasons, but, seriously, for any reason you go see a rock concert, those same reasons apply to the Fire! trio. Their show in Knoxville was Exhibit A.
If you’re not familiar with the Fire! Orchestra recordings, get started now. 2013’s Exit and 2014’s Enter are birds-of-a-feather recordings, with the former being a live performance recording and the latter a studio session.
Enter was also this site’s 2014 Album of the Year.
Apr 25 2019
Thumbscrew at Big Ears Festival 2019: This is really happening
I adore Thumbscrew‘s 2018 double release Ours and Theirs. It earned this site’s Best of 2018 #4 slot, and garnered a mention in my Best Bandcamp Jazz in 2018 column. The trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara possess a cryptic sound, something that incorporates each musician’s distinct individual form of expression that, also, somehow, almost unexpectedly, meshes perfectly into a single, crisp perspective. And it’s an equation whose success proves out whether they’re composing their own odd sonic machinations or covering works from jazz legends of a wayback era. It’s quite magical.
And seeing it happen live…? It was surreal.
Thumbscrew’s Saturday afternoon show at The Standard was pretty straight-forward. The trio nested themselves on the stage behind their music stands and just played along to whatever was written down in front of them. Held up to the electricity flowing between musicians and audience from the Fire! trio on that same stage the night before, this performance was tame by comparison. But just seeing the trio recreate the music of Ours and Theirs in the moment was like peeking behind the face of the universe at the clockwork mechanisms within. It was riveting. There is something almost alien about Thumbscrew’s sound, even when it radiates an unmissable familiarity, that to witness the human beings responsible for it… and to see proof that, yes, it’s three beating hearts and three calculating minds that set that strange and alluring music in motion, it hit me with the sensation of The Big Reveal.
Some or all of that might not make any sense. Obviously I never doubted the music of Ours and Theirs was created by human beings. But so much of our interface with the music we connect with on a daily basis is through the impersonal mediums of digital files and CDs and vinyl, and it’s not difficult to lose sight of the humanity behind it all. This sort of detachment is further compounded by the personalization triggered by and in each of us, as we attach meaning and imagery and consequence to everything we hear as part of the process of making the music a part of who we are. It’s why seeing this music live is so invaluable. Because on top of the wonderful surprises and fascinating deviations that inevitably result from a live performance, and the sensory mainline of experiencing the music live and feeling it as much as hearing it… there’s also the communal nature of the concert, of reconnecting the music to the artists creating it while simultaneously tethering that connection to all of the people in the audience doing the exact same thing at the exact same time.
And we take that back home with us. That sense of community and connection are revived when next listen to that music again on our stereos, alone and in the privacy of our homes, but not quite the solitary act it once was.
The music of Thumbscrew is no less strange and enchanting than when first I heard it, but having seen and heard it in Knoxville at the Big Ears Festival 2019, that magic resonates on a much more human level than it once did.
Be sure to check out Thumbscrew’s excellent 2018 double release Ours and Theirs, released on Cuneiform Records.
I wrote about this album for The Bandcamp Daily.
Available at: (Ours) Bandcamp | Amazon and (Theirs) Bandcamp | Amazon
By davesumner • Live Jazz, Other Writing • 0 • Tags: Big Ears Festival, Cuneiform Records, Knoxville (TN), Live Music, Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Thumbscrew, Tomas Fujiwara