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LIVE REPORT: Fire! At Cafe Oto
Paul Tucker , October 3rd, 2013 04:50

Paul Tucker heads to Oto for a set by a Johan Berthling, Andreas Werliin and Mats Gustafsson of the Fire! Orchestra. Photo by Fabio Lugaro

“We are not here with the orchestra,” Mats Gustafsson tells the Cafe Oto audience, with a slight smile. Fire!, featuring the saxophonist alongside fellow Swedes Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin on bass and drums, have previously taken to performing with a 25-person accompaniment, the Fire! Orchestra. While that sprawling ensemble is something to behold (as their two-track 12” Exit amply demonstrates), Gustafsson can be forgiven for seeming relieved at its absence on this tour; leading a mammoth free-jazz/improv collective across Europe – and onto the stage each night – must be some undertaking. That said, Gustafsson’s smile must be partly attributed to the guests Fire! have brought with them this evening: vocalist Mariam Wallentin (who steps across from her role in the Orchestra) and Japanese avant-garde guitar hero Otomo Yoshihide, in town preparing for a two-night Oto residency of his own. Far from being 23 members down, Fire! are very much two up.

For the show’s first half, Wallentin joins the trio onstage, staring the audience down with serious, dark eyes as she sings prolonged, sweeping notes and impulsive vibratos shaped by twisting and shaking her whole body. Both Wallentin’s instinctive versatility and the importance physicality plays in her delivery are factors she has in common with Gustafsson; in a sense they are both vocalists, and they are both instrumentalists. The two complement each other closely, allowing the other space in which to perform (during some moments, the silent out of the two tends to crouch out of view, making the effect physical as well as sonic). At other times they weave in and out of the mix fluidly, following and imitating each other.

The performance, though, is not just about Wallentin and Gustafsson. One of the most interesting aspects of the show’s first half is the level of restraint Fire! display – thanks largely to the gentle, almost bluesy grounding provided by Berthling and Werliin. Fire! have described themselves in terms of explosive free-jazz greats of the past (while also mentioning garage rock and “industrial sound pressure”). Tonight though, as on latest album (Without Noticing), the performance resembles the Alice Coltrane records of the early 70s as much as it does Sun Ra or Charlie Haden. There are plenty of outbursts and howling crescendos, but Fire! and Wallentin also invoke Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda in occupying a territory somewhere between the sultry and the spiritual.

Alongside the jazz influences there are reminders of 70s rock riffs and flashes of post-rock, most notably that of Do Make Say Think, a band who have themselves opened up new ground between the rock/jazz divide. From these starting points rise the outbursts and wild digressions that Gustafsson, Wallentin and, in the show’s second half, Yoshihide produce at their most exerted. The trio may not all be alumni of Sweden’s troubled and silent suburbs, but Gustafsson at least hails from Umeå, the same North Swedish town from which Refused originated. Maybe that kind of stifling background is what the reference to sound pressure is about – Fire! often establish a solid dynamic norm, relatively speaking, but when they do, they break from it repeatedly.

There are also some incredibly subtle moments. One point sees Gustafsson produce a series of scuttling, ghostly bass notes and rattles from rapid, gentle breaths, leaving the audience themselves breathless. At other moments, his saxophone purrs below the rest of the music. Together, the trio conjure some of their most memorable moments when they almost seem not to be trying. The ability to adapt to performing with either 25 extra members or the odd one or two serves Fire! well. Tonight Yoshihide manages to either slot in or stand out distinctively as required. Seated, half-obscured by a pillar, to one side of the stage, his presence is physically less imposing than Wallentin’s. At the very least, however, his performance suggests it would be foolish of those present to miss his own Cafe Oto residency. The show climaxes with an encore that sees Gustafsson, Berthling and Werliin act as rhythm section, leaving Yoshihide to draw out loud wails with a bow, while Wallentin returns for a final climactic burst.

Before Fire! depart, Gustafsson suggests they may return next year with orchestra in tow. That is an exciting prospect, but their performance this time around feels unique – a one-off fusion of distinct personalities. But then all of Fire!’s performances probably feel something like that.