If I was weird enough to have a list of favourite Swedes then Mats Gustafsson would surely be near the top. The prolific saxophonist was involved in at least a couple of the best jazz projects from the past decade and he just can’t be stopped. Together with his Fire! ensemble he delivers one of the strongest albums of early 2021.
Every Fire! record sounds different from each other, yet Defeat seems like the biggest stylistic leap so far. Simultaneously it appears as one of the more accessible starting points for everyone interested in diving deeper into free jazz. Defeat lies very far from manic and hectic assaults from the likes of Peter Brötzmann, John Coltrane, or even some of Gustafsson’s earlier works. Having said that it still leaves a lot of room for Mats full-on experimental and improvisational sax passages, so you certainly won’t get bored!
Defeat starts on a very strong note upfront with ‘A Random Belt. Rats You Out’ introduces an instrument that was a huge surprise for me initially as it’s hardly ever heard in other Fire! releases and here it takes the lead. Giving the flute some room to breathe and shine turned out to be an amazing and refreshing choice. Accompanied by hypnotic basslines by Johan Berthling and subtle drumming courtesy of Andreas Werliin (and some occasional frantic screams) it serves as a great introduction to this album.
My favourite part however comes in the very middle as the second part of ‘Each Millimeter of the Toad’ starts playing. It starts off slowly, almost as a dark jazz track, with a melancholic trumpet, but in just a blink of an eye, it erupts with a restless sax by Gustafsson. Despite the subcutaneous anxiety it delivers, the whole thing manages to stay so groovy and even playful, it’s hard to keep yourself from nodding your head or tapping your feet along with the rhythm.
Even though Fire! albums without the whole orchestra included seem to gain a bit less notoriety, they’re still among the best jazz records of this century. Defeat cements itself as yet another valuable addition to that catalog. Given how insanely prolific (without losing the quality) Gustafsson was over the last few years I hope I’ll be able to yet again meet with some of his works as early as in late 2021.
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