Sometimes one has to admit that, as much of a connection as free improvisation has with the heart of jazz — an approach to music and life that has its roots in spontaneity — it’s sometimes a bit of a tenuous relationship. European free improvisation has a lengthy history going back to the heady late 1960s, as musicians weaned on traditional jazz and bebop searched for ways to distance themselves from cultural-geographic implications quite different from broad European-ness. In places like Scandinavia, it was ironically the influence of African-American jazz musicians like Don Cherry and Albert Ayler, both resident in Sweden in the 1960s, that helped free up local musicians from American influence. Cherry’s effect on the Stockholm scene of the time — including saxophonists like Bernt Rosengren and Bengt “Frippe” Nordström, pianist Jan Wallgren, and itinerant Turkish drummer Okay Temiz and trumpeter Maffy Falay — cannot be underestimated.
Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson studied with Nordström and also worked with veteran European heavies like Peter Brötzmann (Germany), Günter Christmann (Germany), and Sven-Åke Johansson (Sweden/Germany) throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At this point, he’s one of the leading lights of European free improvisation and has, through integrating it with a longtime interest and experience in punk rock and psychedelia, brought the music to a diverse stage. Lately, his collaborations seem to draw as much from the noise and art-rock end of the spectrum as they do improvised music and jazz, but that’s not to say his roots don’t often show.
The Tarfala Trio is a cooperative venture that also features English contrabassist Barry Guy and fellow Swede, percussionist Raymond Strid (Gush, Too Much Too Soon Orchestra). With its roots going back to 1992, the group has gigged around Europe, including collaborations with pianists Sten Sandell and Marilyn Crispell, drummer Alvin Fielder, and saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Curiously, Syzygy is the trio’s second proper recording in nearly two decades of existence, featuring four sidelong improvisations on two slabs of heavyweight vinyl with the addition of a bonus 7-inch. In true Gustafsson “diskaholic” style, the package itself is absolutely stunning, housed in a heavyweight gatefold with a gorgeous LP-sized booklet of photos by Ziga Koritnik. The music was recorded live in Belgium in fine detail, making this a very high-end and honest document of European free music.
With reputations for both full-bore freedom and rarefied insectile distance, it’s easy to forget that things like lyricism and delicacy are important, that players with as much pedigree as Gustafsson and Strid are capable of poetic statements. Part of this group’s penchant for simple give-and-take might be due to Guy’s presence. The bassist has been a significant figure on the landscape of creative music since 1967, and he shows no sign of letting up — “supple orchestration” could be his nom de plume. From the opening entreaties of “Broken by Fire,” the saxophonist’s tenor coagulations nod equally to Evan Parker and Albert Ayler, logical incisions that ultimately catapult in steely, go-for-broke exploration. Although a first-time listener might not know it, Gustafsson is almost reined-in here, dipping and shouting as he bunches, blats, and stretches out on newfound tightropes. Guy and Strid are absolutely nothing like Thing collaborators Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love, rather constructing a lacy accenting thrum that’s constantly on the verge of disappearing. Constancy is, of course, the stock in trade of this rhythm section, ebbing and lapping cymbals enveloping the five-string filigree of Guy’s manhandled classicism. When Strid switches to a bevy of mallets and small objects, his phrases mirror Gustafsson’s flutter in beautiful succession; the three build tension expertly as Guy strums and swirls against breathy harmonics and eventual pulpit-pounding. The side closes with velvety, somber crooning, drawn arco and tapped gongs in huge, sweet counterpoint.
The third side’s “Cool in Flight” begins as a duo for bass and tenor, recalling the excellent Guy-Gustafsson duo LP Sinners, Rather than Saints (No Business, 2009) with slap-tongue drawn into burred lines. Jamming mallets and objects into the strings, Guy’s pizzicato solo sounds more like a brutish take on prepared piano à la Juan Hidalgo or the Swedish guitar wizard Christian Munthe. As the saxophonist reenters and tries to find a matching cadence, it sounds more akin to a drunken clamber. But the trio’s empathy is borne out through steadfastness as“wrong-ish” notes and phrases become “right.” Dogged volleys are rhythmic through lungpower and athleticism, glossolalic screams granted a workmanlike search as Strid and Guy maintain a toe-tapping rigor. There’s a winsome quality to the bassist’s upper-register strums alongside Gustafsson’s simple closing phrases, which recall Archie Shepp’s protest-pastoral “There is a Balm in Gilead.” This performance alone is worth the price of the set.
Taking two 20-minute slices out of an 85-minute set might seem disingenuous, but there’s so much music on offer here that giving it all away in platitudes seems more unfair. It’s worth noting again that a significant swath of Gustafsson’s work of the last several years has been wrapped in lung-busting machismo, tight t-shirts and wagging tongues alongside free-jazz covers of punk rock tunes. That music has its own attraction — outdoing PJ Harvey on “Who the Fuck,” for instance — but without denigrating the world-class improvisation that goes on in The Thing, Fire, and other groups, the Tarfala Trio embraces subtlety as much as it does the full-bore. There are snatches of jazz, or maybe the whole thing is “jazz,” depending on how open your definition of the music is — danger, excitement, love, and knowledge, where the only preordained structure is empathy.