Swedish Azz: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: The sound of jazz falling down a very long flight of stairs, and sticking the landing perfectly.
File next to: The little-known history of Swedish jazz
Playing: Wavelength 670, Tuesday June 23 @ Hard Luck Bar, opening for The Ex

Maybe Sweden isn’t the first place that pops into your mind when you hear the word “jazz” — but without Sweden’s rich jazz history, perhaps Mats Gustafsson and Per-Åke Holmlander, who anchor Swedish Azz, might have had to find another establishment to simultaneously pay homage to and disassemble. Mats and his music are a study in contrasts — his discography spans decades and his collaborators have ranged from jazz legends such as Hamid Drake, to purveyors of frantic noise such as Merzbow, and beyond – Sonic Youth, Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), Jim O’Rourke, even our own Colin Stetson. The music of Swedish Azz is deliberate, passionate, and at times, violent and transcendental. It is music that scratches at something basic and primal – something not easily expressed in words. We asked him to give it a shot, however.

How did the Swedish Azz project come to be?

This has been Per-Åke’s and my dream project for more then 20 years now — to play Swedish jazz in a contemporary way. To keep the essence of the pieces and transform it into something that can be valid today as well. To make the music from a contemporary perspective – to see what have changed meanwhile. What new frictions can be found? What has changed?

We talked about this project for years, but we didn’t know what line-up we needed and wanted. It was pretty clear to us to recruit Kjell Nordeson (we are all from the same county, in Lapland, Sweden). But when we heard Erik Carlsson for the first time, we decided to use Kjell on vibes instead of on drums. It took another few years and I heard Dieb13 at the Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen festival in Austria, playing a duet with Phil Minton. That blew me away. Completely. His turntablism and his approach to music in general convinced me, he was the missing link in the Swedish Azz puzzle!

Of course he didn’t know absolutely anything about Swedish jazz – so it turned out to be a very interesting balance.

The group has been managed by Per-Åke and myself from the start. We try to arrange stuff together and make all the decisions together with the other members of the group. Sharing it all.

Some of the Swedish Azz improv work is at times jarring or shocking — do you feel a responsibility to surprise or shock the audience?

This is, of course, entirely up to the listener. What is shocking? Why? How? When?

Jarring? Mette Rasmusen’s alto sax is jarring; cuts through brick walls – but Swedish Azz? Very gentle, very fine! [laughs]

It’s all in the mind of the listener. We don’t do shocking music – we don’t try to provoke. We just love this music. We love playing it – we love re-arranging it – we love to fuck it up a bit… but we do love the music — and it is our mission to spread some more light on some of the forgotten Swedish music and composers. Some of them are not so well known outside of Scandinavia. Only musicians like Lars Gullin and Jan Johansson might be known in wider jazz circles. We want to cast some light on musicians and composers like Börje Fredriksson, Sune Spångberg, Lars Werner, Lars Färnlöf, Berndt Egerbladh, and others. There is so much great jazz from the so-called “Golden Age” of Swedish jazz in the 1950s. That’s also why we try to talk between pieces as well – to talk about the composers and their music.

But, who knows, when we finished playing all the Swedish compositions, we might turn our attention to Canada — and only play music by Kenny Wheeler, Paul Bley, Oscar Peterson, or anything jazz-orientated by the mighty Michael Snow!

Is there a system or set of rules that sits atop your improvisations? Do you follow a “format” or how do they come together?

Per-Åke and I usually rearrange the material together and then discuss a form with the other members. Then we try things out. In the case of the Swedish jazz compositions that we are using, we try to keep some parameters true to the original versions. So, we might for instance keep just the melody and we don’t care about the harmonic progressions and original rhythms – we just change that completely around.

Or, we might just keep the harmonies and make new melodies. It’s all up for grabs. Whatever works; whatever kicks our asses and minds. Whatever challenges us.

We are looking for the most interesting friction, and when we find it – we try to fuck it up a bit more – then things really start to swing!

But yet, we really try to keep the essentials of the compositions and dress the concept in new colours and energies. We truly love that material. Showing your love and appreciation can take many forms.

What electronics specifically are you using these days? Any noise generators, or more loopers, effects?

Personally, I’m using a lot of the circuit-bending devices that the UK-based company BugBrand created for me, some years ago. They’re in a way built on the concept of the legendary Crackle Box, but modified and even further fucked up. On top of that — some filters, modulators and shit.

What drew you to include electronics in your performances? Do they offer anything in particular you felt you weren’t getting from your other instruments?

Curiosity. Friction. To see what it would add to the actual sax playing. Lots of reasons! I simply love the sounds of the circuit bending unpredictability. I need to be on my toes all the time. New things happen constantly, and a lot of factors affect the sound [of these devices], such as light, humidity, heat — it makes it all very exciting for me to work with them.

We here in Toronto have a bit in common with Sweden – realllllly long, cold winter nights, for one. Do you think the music Swedish Azz is making could exist if you lived in more temperate climes? Do you think your environment shapes your sound or… nah?

[laughs] Not really! It’s an interesting thought but there are other factors that affect us as humans and artists way more. I love the cold. The dark.

The music you make demands so much attention of the listener – when you want a break from the type of music you’re creating, what are you putting on?

I am a bad discaholic and I listen to all kinds of music – but I am hopelessly in love with the various dialects of jazz. West Coast, bebop, hard bop, New Orleans, third stream and everything related.

When someone recently played me the new D’Angelo album, I really couldn’t believe it. The production is so wayyy out – beautiful!

Two records has been spinning constantly on my four turntables the past months though — the new Wildbirds & Peacedrums album “Rhythm” and the latest Tape album “Casino.” Those vinyls rock my planet.

When I really want to enjoy myself, I have a glass of my favourite grappa and listen to my only heroes in life: Little Richard and The Cramps!

You’re hitting Toronto at a time of year that is about the best we have to offer – anything you want to get done while you’re here?

Yeah! Go to all the places where BJ [ex-Toronto Maple Leaf Börje Salming] and [ex-Toronto Maple Leaf Mats] Sundin have been. Amazing that so many great players have played for the Maple Leafs over the years. BJ and Sundin, along with “Foppa” Forsberg — the best players ever from Sweden, if you ask me. When I was kid I followed BJ very closely. Got his — and Inge Hammarström’s — autograph once. It was the happiest day in my life! So – yeah! I need to focus properly while in Toronto — on hockey!

— Interview by Dean Williams

Photo credit: Stanislav Milojkovic