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The Thing – Bag It!

on June 30, 2009, 2:00pm

First and foremost, The Thing is an incredibly difficult band to Google. After sifting through a bunch of links for the John Carpenter film, the comic book character and something called “an object based quarterly publication,” you might be lucky enough to find some information about the Swedish/Norwegian free jazz trio The Thing.

Though only nine years old, the group’s got a damn impressive résumé. Reed-man Mats Gustafsson may be known to some as a session player with Sonic Youth or The Ex, and is also a member of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and various Silence projects. Bassist Ingebrigt HÃ¥ker Flaten has an extensive discography as well, including the outstanding jazz group Atomic. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is one of the most in demand drummers in free jazz experimentation.

But it’s as a trio that they are the most impressive. Between its massive studio and live recordings, the collaborations with Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Jim O’Rourke and others, its covers of everything from free jazz legend Ornette Coleman to the White Stripes, The Thing is like globe-stomping jazz pioneers, proving to the world that the genre’s not dead or wallowing.

And this year’s Bag It! proves it with a kick to the gut. Opening with a yowling, warbling blast of saxophone, “Hidegen Fujinaka Szelek” (a rendition of an Ex recording) thumps and shudders like a Lightning Bolt jam, the bass and sax doubling up to make the tune even more gut-wrenching. “Drop the Gun” has a straight punk rock feel, but accentuated by brain-scrambling electronic fuzz. The 17 minute long title track is the first piece on the album that a casual listener might call jazz. Nilssen-Love’s slap and pop drumming counter-acts Gustafsson’s lithe, howling cat/rumbling traffic sax acrobatics.

The two minute long drum solo that opens “Snusvisan” is something every drummer should hear. The virtuosic range and power Nilssen-Love displays in that short burst is quickly given an extra layer of filth, thanks to some chattering electronics and thundering sax.

But the cover of free jazz legend Albert Ayler’s “Angels” is the piece to be heard. Gustafsson’s prowess emerges here, his instrument sounding more like a mourning scream at times. And it’s quite fitting that Gustafsson would be playing an Ayler tune; Gustafsson is routinely compared to the German legend Brötzmann (with whom he’s played many times), while Brötzmann was often intense free jazz musicianship was often compared to Ayler. Throughout the piece, Nilssen-Love sticks primarily to the cymbals, clattering splashes here, shallow clanks there. Gustafsson’s primal scream slowly falls away, melting into a more traditional, sugary swing. All the while, HÃ¥ker Flaten adds a dose of fluttering electronic noise, an added pulse to the tune.

While the members of The Thing each put out enough records to keep you sated for the next group issue, each Thing record is worth the wait, and Bag It! is certainly no exception. Deftly combining the worlds of jazz, rock and noise (without falling into the dreaded “jazz fusion” territory), this record is something that anyone either curious about jazz or completely immersed in the genre should seek out ASAP.

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