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Afro Blue Antonio Poscic , January 18th, 2024 09:25

A 1998 live recording with drummer Raymond Strid, and pianist Sten Sandell, finds Mats Gustafsson on crisp form channelling Coltrane on peals of sparkling, snakelike riffs

Contemporary free jazz and improvisation are strangely ephemeral yet timeless. While the extemporaneous characteristics of these styles imply continuous evolution, a certain continuity at play can make a decades-old album sound just as vibrant and forward-thinking as something recorded today. Afro Blue by saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Raymond Strid, and pianist Sten Sandell – or simply GUSH – is one such record.

Originally captured live in 1998 at the Fasching club in Stockholm, the album documents GUSH at a very different stage of their career than where we find them today, yet feels just as inspirited and artistically mature as the music they’ve been releasing since (including 2015’s The March and 2023’s Kraków 2018). Formed ten years earlier, in 1988, the trio started out by playing textural, droning music inspired by the tone and timbre of the Armenian woodwind duduk. By the time the music on Afro Blue was played, they had shifted towards more traditional free jazz forms, but retained some of that tactile textural sensibility in their music.

This is clear right from the onset, as Sten Sandell assembles a series of exquisite piano progressions to open the half-hour long piece ‘Behind The Chords V’. Unlike the firmer, cerebral style reminiscent of Misha Mengelberg that he came to explore with GUSH during the past decade, here his playing is nigh euphoric, occasionally touching upon the sort of rapture elicited by Keith Jarrett’s seminal The Köln Concert.

When Gustafsson and Strid join him with a flow of subtle touches, their elegant contributions evoke the subdued aesthetics of Carla Bley’s ensemble with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow. Soon enough, though, they start digressing into increasingly fervent freak-outs – met with some well-warranted whoops from the audience – fuelled by Gustafsson’s emphatic phrasing, simultaneously fiery and melodic.

While Gustafsson has always been an acolyte of John Coltrane, rarely can that influence in his sound be heard so clearly as here. Whereas his style would later gravitate towards a filthier, punk-inflected grunt – especially when playing with The Thing and Fire! – here his licks are tall and crisp, soaring effervescently through high registers, snaking around Sandell’s scattered chords and Strid’s sparse but firm rhythmic lines.

‘Behind The Chords VI’ settles things down as the players begin articulating more delicate phrases. They frame disjointed, abstract shapes with moments of lovely groove, like a preview of the things that would come later in their career. Similar to the previous track, the recording, production, and mastering quality elevate the music, with each snare hit, saxophone yelp, and piano key feeling almost three-dimensional. To think that these recordings were almost lost if not for Standell’s project of digitising his archive!

Meanwhile, the titular ‘Afro Blue’ overflows with emotion. The piece unfolds like a cover of Coltrane’s rendition of the composition rather than Mongo Santamaría’s original jazz standard. At times, the fervour with which GUSH play comes eerily close to the transcendent harmony of Coltrane with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Gustafsson is particularly on fire here, ripping affecting leads that skip over Sandell’s start-stop lines and Strid’s skittering drum patterns. It would have made sense to end the album here, in these moments of ecstasy and amidst a burst of free jazz chaos, but instead the trio see things out with ‘Improvisation 2 (After the Chords)’, a soothing nightcap of calm balladry.