sammy steins – REVIEWS

May.06, 2020

here it is: sammy steins excellent text on REVIEWS!

check it out!!!

and give yr comments – on FB or email:

Reviews – important or not?

The role of the reviewer is sometimes difficult to gauge. As a reviewer, I once asked a record label owner whether reviews made a difference. He replied it was hard to tell. It is difficult to get answers yet a lot of people request a review. So, I put out an open question asking musicians, labels and venues to respond. I did not expect much back as even when musicians have asked in the past, they got almost zero response.

I asked: What is the value of reviews if any? Do they actually help? If so how, if not, why?

The response I got was intense and surprising. To give context, I review for 3 columns – each with a different market and leaning towards different genres within jazz music (and sometimes outside it). I have had 2 books on jazz commissioned and published and am now on my third (my 6th book overall). For most reviews I get no payment – partly because I feel reviews should be unbiased and also because it enables me to make choices and I am able to put people who should be heard (in my opinion), in front of potential listeners. For me, I guess that justifies what I do. I have been asked and would like to review professionally but not to be told what to write – and this is difficult with commercial papers. They would be taking on not only a slightly Maverick reviewer (a reputation I enjoy and my editors approve of (mostly)) but the material would not always tie in with how magazines generate income to stay afloat. The last commission I accepted was fine until the editor tried to tell me exactly how to write – what was the point in asking me to review? It raised doubts in my mind – and a lot of questions.

Hence the question; What do reviews actually achieve?

The reactions were so varied the only way to weave this together coherently was to divide the answers into sections. So, here are the responses from musicians, listeners, PR companies and others.

From musicians

Overall, musicians see reviews as having value and purpose. When a musician or band release a new album they want to make some noise – they might make promo videos, media announcements of new collaborations and they also want reviews.

Reviews offer the chance for external feedback.  An objective review of your work can give it reality so you see it more objectively.

For bands  hoping to increase their audiences, reviews are important. Some musicians believe reading how the music made an unbiased reviewer feel can make them aware of different aspects  of  their music (or how factors they felt were present are not apparent to an objective listener).

Reviews are also important for festival and venue curators looking for a new band or a variation to their program. Curators need a decent line up and if they are told about a band, reviews are one of their ports of call to gain a feel for the band’s worth. Speaking to an agent or talking to their manager will not be as objective as reviews.  For PR companies looking for bands to promote it is important to represent clients who are likely to be successful so reviews are important, especially if you haven’t managed to catch them live. Reviews therefore are part of the tool kit for understanding a band’s or musician’s presence and where they might fit.

One promoter told me, ” I find reviews very helpful and they have helped me decide whether to take a band or consider them for a tour.” Another told me, “I always check out reviews by particular reviewers – then I have to see the band too of course.”

It is important to note too that the role of reviews has changed in recent years. At one time, listeners found out more about a musician or band through magazines or mainstream media. Musicians made money from selling recordings. Now it is different. Some people have told me they never pay for music because it is shared, which is a problem for musicians trying to make a living. Less money is made from recordings unless you are a mega star selling zillions of tracks online. So, some musicians rely more on money from gigs and merchandise sold at gigs. Reviewers have a changed role; they are not the only way people can get to know about a band. People can see reviews and comments left on media sites and video sites for example. They can see reactions on social media. So, is the role of the reviewer less important? For most musicians it seems not.

Many musicians enjoy getting reviews. One told me, “Some of us really like getting reviews. Really, we do”,  because they want an opinion from a reviewer they trust.

It is important for musicians to have a healthy response to reviews as well. One musician succinctly summed it up when he said, ” I have a love/hate relationship with critics. I don’t put any stock in their opinions (good or bad), but I realize a good review can keep my band working. ”

For PR, reviews can provide a link to the potential audience in terms of providing a stepping stone to getting work, growing a fan base, adding to the press kit. The musicians will have material to quote.

All this is cool but how then do you take a bad review? Even the most successful musicians have had a bad review. Reviewers are people, they are opinionated people, so you will get good and not so good reviews. Most musicians say a bad review hurts and it can put them off their game temporarily, or make them doubt their worth but others say poor reviews make them stronger. If it is well written, they can learn and actually benefit from a less than ecstatic review. Constructive criticism in reviews can be useful. An honest review with positive, instructive critique can help a musician understand how their music is heard by an outsider. Only once have I had a musician ask a piece to be changed when I (gently) pointed out she was flat for a phrase (because she was and it detracted from an otherwise gorgeous number) but generally, musicians understand that different people hear things differently and a review acts as feedback. Criticism can also be positive if it is constructive. For example saying the artist has more to come, is evolving and so on with backed up reasoning is good for a musician (remembering this is just opinion).

Some reviews however are just nasty and say more about the reviewer than the musicians. I recently read one where the reviewer informed the readers he, personally, had never heard of this (4 times Parliamentary award winner) female musician, was not familiar with some of the tracks (2 were  standards and 3 had been on her previous albums) and that the club was a ‘bit dark’ and he remembered it when it was called something else. Towards the end he added a paragraph on the gig. He didn’t enjoy himself it seems. The piece was more about the reviewer than the music and he offered no insights at all. Considering he had not paid for his ticket, got free drinks and left after the first half when the musician in question dared to disagree with him on something (I was told this later), it was a strange read. The reader was left wondering what the gig was actually like. Another review by the same writer was openly  homophobic and spent much of the review discussing his lack of familiarity with the songs (mostly standards) , with a final 2 paragraphs on the actual recording .

Good reviewers would set the scene, discuss the band and singer briefly and put it in context for the reader, then discuss the music, engagement etc.

It is also amusing to hear musicians describe writers. Generally, if things go well, the writer is a reviewer. If not, they are called a critic.

Overall, it seems many musicians value and welcome reviews. They are a tool to help them reach a broader audience. In all cases though, musicians value review more if the writer has a way with words and the publication, whether in paper or online, has ‘clout’. They are helpful for labels and reflect their good choice of putting out a musician’s work and they can open doors to even more exposure and tours.

Some musicians do not give reviews much attention though. A few say they don’t have time to read them, they have been hurt by negative ones and therefore stopped reading them. One even told me they had read a review where the reviewer showed no understanding of the music at all. The band still got gigs so the reviews – to them- are meaningless.

So, it seems the jury is split regarding musicians, though more are in favour of reviews than not.

At the end of the day, a review is an expression of opinion. It is a review, a reaction at that time, it is not the divine finger pointing and picking fault.  Just a review, just an opinion and you can ignore it if you want to. We are reviewers, not God.


The feedback from people who enjoy music was interesting. There is a scary amount of music out there with new material becoming available all the time. Although it is possible to listen to music for free, people want to own a great playlist or find new acts to see. This is where reviewers come in as a sort of curator (or trusted friend as one described it). They can interpret the vast amount out there for the would-be buyer or audience member. Reviewers can’t cover everything though, so this also means that that there is probably some awesome material  out there that we will never know about.

A reviewer with good knowledge will direct readers towards good music; they may help focus attention and even bring a different aspect or a new act to the reader. One person told me, “As a music lover first and foremost, I have bought many albums from reading reviews. Sometimes musicians/bands don’t tour or gig locally so a review will often lead me to discovering music I may not have.”

Now that we don’t have the ‘gatekeepers’ – people in label offices who let the public see a few artists at a time, releasing a few records at a time and carefully tailoring their artists to suit a market- anyone can release a recording which, for listeners and music fans, makes it difficult to find the good stuff. Many people rely on reviewers for help with that. I found this surprising as I had not really thought how people navigated amongst the new music produced on a regular basis.


Reviews are considered more trustworthy than adverts and press releases because obviously what a label says about their artist or a PR company puts out about their clients are going to be positive. So, for readers, the reviewer can convey the feeling of a piece of work, the artist’s intentions and background to a recording and  help the listener frame the work within the bigger picture.

Knowledgeable and well informed reviewers can introduce new listeners to more experimental music in a more meaningful way sometimes perhaps. One reader told me that if it were not for reviews, they would not have got into jazz.

The hidden sides to reviews

If you think every review you read is objective, think again. Many are but it is also important to read reviews with a couple of caveats. Firstly, the reviewer is one person. Their knowledge has limits and many reviewers are not musicians. Secondly, if writing for free, most reviewers are going to review music they like. Personally, I turn down more requests than I review – and why not when a negative review can hurt? If something does not work for me, it is maybe going to work for another writer. Paid reviews are different. A commissioned review can, in theory, be negative or positive so long as you justify your opinion but this is not always the case.

Magazines and website have outlays. They have staff to pay in some cases and they have websites to run. All this costs money. So, unless they have deep pockets it is unlikely larger magazines and sites they are going to be publishing reviews without charge to anyone unless they are publishing their own reviews due to their passion for the music (and there are some small sites who do just that).

Most sites take adverts – either from artists promoting their music, PR companies or maybe venues promoting their activities. This potentially brings into question whether reviews can ever be completely objective. If a label is paying for adverts on your site, do you publish negative reviews of their artists? If a writer is paid by a PR company, will they write a negative review? If a PR company advertises their services on a site, will the site publish a negative review of an artist the company represents? Tricky questions. Yet it is not wrong to take money in order to keep a site or magazine alive, it is just that readers need to judge and be aware.

The line maybe become blurred years back when record labels started ‘bribing’ magazines in different ways as some see it (placing large adverts for a band’s tour for example) in the magazine. The magazine is more likely to review favourably in this case. Some musicians may feel that because of how magazines work, there is a sense of  rewarding and promoting mediocrity. You can be ‘brilliant’, 5 star’ and ‘ a great new find’-  if you can afford it.

So what about the genuine star who emerges and cannot afford to pay for reviews? It is then they have to hope they find a reviewer who is empathetic, who understand their music and can spot quality, but they may not. It is too glib to say , ‘ if they are good, they will be successful’ because there are many react acts out there who never get a break because they get lost in the crowd and reviewers miss them. However, sometimes this is where a good and incisive amateur reviewer can come into their own. They can bring that musician to the attention of people who need to hear them ( in the reviewer’s opinion), they can maybe get them radio play and then, they can sit back and watch them shine, given as they are now, the tools with which to do so.


There are ‘reviewers’ who are lazy and this is an area difficult to understand. You will see ‘reviews’ of artists which resemble each other because they are all tweaks of the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) put out by the PR company. This happens a lot with well known bands because the reviewers wants to be able to say ‘ I reviewed (xyz)’.  So you get lots of reviews saying almost the same thing because the reviewer just tweaked the press review and not really listened to the music.

You can also buy a ‘good’ review. There are ‘reviewers out there who offer 5 star reviews for a high fee, 4 stars for less money and this without ever listening to the music until a contract is agreed. Many people are not aware of this practice but it happens. What does this do for impartiality and quality?  I became aware of the practice when a musician explained after she offered me money for a review because she assumed this was how it was done.   Having said all this I do occasionally get paid by one PR company but before we went ahead we agreed the reviews had to remain objective and would not automatically be positive. For me that was important because I write for readers who are discerning and intelligent, not sheep (apologies to sheep).

It is difficult for an artist to hide poor reviews. A simply internet search will bring up reviews, good and bad but of course more labels/PR companies only share the positive reviews to gain momentum for their clients, so might some critics be encouraged to only write positive reviews to the increased exposure the will get as well?

The point is, read the review with awareness. As a reviewer it still comes as a surprise when you are told a magazine will run your review if you can persuade the label or musician to place an advert with them because, whilst it is perhaps understandable, it is bribery.

The importance of the reviewer 

Many people told me that it is not just getting a review but also getting particular reviewers that makes a difference. Anyone can write a review. Your mate can put a review on a blog and it might be insightful and well written but unless your mate is known for their integrity and knowledge, it will not help in terms of marketing you.

Many musicians said they aim to get reviews from particular writers because they know these people get read – a lot. Some also aim for particular reviewers they know understand their kind of music ( note to musicians – do your research). Certain reviewers, columnists in magazines and bloggers carry more weight than others due to their knowledge, listening ability and time they give a review. You won’t get a re-hash of the EPK from them.   You will get how the recording came about, how the band got together perhaps, who is in the band, any meaningful background and maybe a direct quote from the artist. The review will let you feel the music, or understand the atmosphere at a live gig and put it into context.

Some columns are seen as more valuable than others. These include ( the list is not exhaustive): Something Else Reviews, free Jazz Collective, Jazz Views, Straight No Chaser, The Jazz Mann, All About Jazz and there are more.  Within the columns, if they have multiple contributors, there are particular reviewers musicians aim for. These include ( but again, this is not an exhaustive list) Brian Morton, Pete Margasak, Nick Lea, Lee Rice Epstein, Victor Aaron, Adrian Pallant and there are others just as engaging.

Because it was raised more than once ( and with passion in two cases) , it is also worth including the sexism which still prevails in music and is encouraged by musicians who mine the erotic seam. It is still true that females who sit half naked at a piano playing crap will get more attention and therefore potentially reviews than a male player who is a rework of Ellington. A glance at some pinned pictures on Twitter will give you some idea of those still plying this ancient method to get attention. It works to some extent but readers need to discern, as do reviewers, the talent which lies behind the pictures and the longevity of both.  It is aimed at men, which are just half of the potential audience. Talent, on the other hand, aims at everyone.  Just putting that out there because it came up.

So, why do writers review?

This question got a range of answers. The reasons include that it is about documenting the music. It is also about sharing the music a reviewer is passionate about and trying to allow others to understand the feelings it brings about. For me, it is about all the above but also how it connects us with the past and makes us look to the future and not repeat historical events connected with the music. Plus, I get something out of watching an artist I gave a platform to –   whether this is in a review of on the radio – and seeing them soar – watching what they can do given that chance. I am lucky to have people who believe in me so I understand how it is important for a musicians to have writers believe in them. For other writers, it is about connecting with people – seeing their name at the head or foot of a review, something permanent. It gives them material to cite when looking for other work and it is about gaining respect and connection with musicians of immense talent. About being part of a community.

Most musicians say making music is their top priority ( along with family and friends) . Next comes admin for their band/self/business and then all the rest including promoters/reviews. But reviews are definitely in the tool box.


SAMMY STEIN , may 6th 2020

John Corbett 70s studies

Mar.20, 2019

Pick Up the Pieces

Check john corbetts latest book out – a bizarre and beautiful study of the 70s – mindsets, mechanics and all related!


one piece of vinyl a day keeps the doctor away!

brötzmann interview

Mar.11, 2019


a new (great) interview w peter b – w some great footage as well. check it out and learn:

Peter Brötzmann interview


lennart nilsson

Sep.05, 2013

Lennart Nilsson – Fragment av ett liv: politik, musik, mat/dryck

photo: Gunnar Holmberg

english intro:

I have now, at age 76 , come to a point in life where I have a lot more behind me than ahead of me. I definitely do not have the feeling of standing with one foot in the grave , but I think I accomplished more in those 76 years than I will do in my future years , how many they can now be. Anything different would be a suprprise.
It is an issue entitled : What actually happened? What did actualy came out of all this ?
This question can of course be answered in a variety of ways, from a list of some facts like education , employment , marriage, children , … a comprehensive autobiography. Neither of these alternatives/ extremes has attracted me. I have instead chosen to limit myself to a modest path in the form of the texts included on my webpage . A selection of these , together with an explanatory introduction, became a website, I have now, at age 76 , come to a point in life where I have a lot more behind me than ahead of me. I definitely do not have the feeling of standing with one foot in the grave , but I think I accomplished more in those 76 years than I will do in my future years , how many they can now be. Others would be pretty weird .
It is an issue entitled : What was that?
This question can of course be answered in a variety of ways, from a list of some facts that education , employment , marriage, children , … a comprehensive autobiography. Neither of these extremes has attracted me. I have instead chosen to limit myself to the modest track I was in existence in the form of texts . A selection of these , together with an explanatory introduction, become a website,
Music has , in various ways, played a major role in my life. As the website’s very last element , in “Music Illustrations ” , I have also included some music by myself. As an amateur musician , I certainly did not leave any ” trace of existence ,” but this should be seen as an appendage , a ” fun thing ” . And it’s actually MY website. My very good friend, pianist Marilyn Crispell once said : “You do not know a person until you really heard him play .” What this feature says about my person is outside my area of ??competence, so I leave that open . And it is , at my old age , not very important.
I also want to send a sincere thanks for the excellent artwork by my friend Gunnar Holmberg.
Thanks also to Erik Jonasson , who with creative and patient work has created  the web page.
Here it is,  not just about the parts of an individual human fate . I’m also a representative of a fairly large group of people , who made a ‘ class journey” , ie a change of social class. Thanks to the school reforms , that the Social Democrats held after World War II ,  also children from poor home could  study . There were opportunities for reduced (or , as in my case , a total exemption from ) the tuition fee and free textbooks . Second only to the elementary school introduction in the mid -1800s , this should be the most important thing that ever happened in Swedish school policy .
Well, more about that on the website. You can go into this and see if you find something interesting.

Västerås in September 2013
Lennart Nilsson

photo: Gunnar Holmberg

Jag har nu, vid 76 års ålder, kommit till en punkt i livet, där jag har betydligt mer bakom mig än framför mig. Jag har definitivt inte känslan av att stå med en fot i graven, men jag tror att jag uträttat mer under dessa 76 år än jag kommer att göra under mina kommande år, hur många de nu kan bli. Annat vore rätt konstigt.
Därför är en fråga berättigad: Vad blev det?
Denna fråga kan naturligtvis besvaras på en mängd sätt, från en uppräkning av några fakta som utbildningar, anställningar, äktenskap, barn,… till en omfattande självbiografi. Ingen av dessa ytterligheter har lockat mig. Jag har i stället valt att begränsa mig till de blygsamma spår jag satt i tillvaron i form av texter. Ett urval av dessa har, tillsammans med en förklarande inledning, blivit en hemsida,
Musiken har, på olika sätt, spelat en viktig roll i mitt liv. Som hemsidans allra sista inslag, under “Musikillustrationer”, har jag också tagit med lite musik jag själv gjort. Som amatörmusiker har jag definitivt inte satt några “spår i tillvaron”, utan det här ska ses som ett bihang, en “kul grej”. Och det är ju faktiskt MIN hemsida. Min mycket goda vän pianisten Marilyn Crispell sade en gång: “Man känner inte en person riktigt förrän man hört honom spela”. Vad det här inslaget säger om min person ligger utanför mitt kompetensområde, så det lämnar jag öppet. Och det är, så här på min ålders höst, inte särskilt viktigt.
Jag vill också sända ett varmt tack för ett utmärkt bildmaterial till min vän Gunnar Holmberg.
Ett tack även till Erik Jonasson, som med kreativt och tålmodigt arbete “gjort” sidan.
Här handlar det emellertid inte bara om delar av ett individuellt människoöde. Jag är också representant för en ganska stor grupp människor, som gjort en s k klassresa, dvs ett byte av samhällsklass. Tack vare de skolreformer, som socialdemokraterna genomförde efter andra världskriget, kunde även barn från fattiga hem studera. Det fanns möjligheter till nedsatt (eller, som i mitt fall, total befrielse från) terminsavgift och fria läroböcker. Näst efter folkskolans införande vid mitten av 1800-talet torde detta vara det viktigaste som någonsin skett i svensk skolpolitik.
Nå, mer om detta på hemsidan. Du kan gå in på denna och se om Du finner något intressant.

Västerås i september 2013
Lennart Nilsson


interview Jim O`Rourke

May.05, 2011

here it is… the worst interview with Jim O `Rourke ever…

done by yours truly…

unfortunatley (fortunately ?) only in swedish:

biographical text by Mera Gartz

Mar.04, 2010

an absolute great biographical text by GREAT drummer Thomas Mera Gartz is to be found and read at:

only in swedish… but amazingly fascinating and well written! ENJOY!

Lennart Nilsson: On improvisation

Feb.13, 2010

On improvisation

The Problem
Music exists and has existed in all cultures and societies. Clearly music is something important. Still literary and pictorial art exists as well, though there is an essential difference. Words and pictures carry meaning and as such have had important uses early on. These have ranged from down-to-earth tasks of passing on simple messages to the creation of myths aimed at shaping a shared conceptual world for a defined group. It is from these activities that the verbal and pictorial arts have developed. However, when it comes to pure music there is no comparable origin, for which reason history abounds with varying perceptions of the nature and function of music.
This essay aims at sketching just such a perception, especially in relation to improvised music. The sketch will not take the form of a verifiable or falsifiable statement such as “This is how it is”, but should rather be seen as a suggestion, a la “Let’s look at it this way and see where it takes us”.

The Function of Music
As opposed to the verbal arts and some pictorial art, music does not convey meaningful content. The order, consistency and unity present in music are pure form. However, those structures created and shaped in music can be applied to the ambient reality as forms of empty metaphors and thus contribute to making that reality meaningful and understandable. That which in itself has no meaning can thus become an instrument for creating meanings.

How we perceive reality determines how we think, feel and act, which in turn produces new meanings in an endless cycle. In other words, music is a part of those activities that create meaning, serving as structurisors of our experienced reality, our ‘world’, and thus our thoughts, feelings and acts. An individual’s personality or identity consists of those regularities and similarities that are found in this constant, continuous and individual process. The process works within a social network that also encompasses the formation of regularities and similarities within reality perceptions and activity patterns. These constitute a society or a culture.

Seen in this way, music is a creator of tools for understanding and readiness for action, thus serving as an active power in the shaping of mankind and of society. As part of this shaping process, music delineates parts and aspects of reality often well beyond consciousness, words and pictures. These parts and aspects can easily remain in darkness in our culture, inhabiting a grey zone where consciousness, verbal language and pictures join to impress the production of meaning and thereby the perception of reality heavily. The ear becomes a less important tool to ‘build’ the world with than is the eye, which world therefore ends up poorer and smaller than it needs to be. Music is a means for enriching and expanding our ‘world’ by making new aspects understandable, thus making our lives richer and our identities more secure.

Grasping Reality
A capacity for perceiving system in the sense of predictable order as part of human interaction with the ambient world has always been essential for human survival. Such order ranges from practical know-how relating to separate situations to models of the universe, philosophies, faiths and Weltanschaung. Our everyday experiences teach us that event A always or most nearly always is followed by event B. We expect this relationship when confronted with event A and act thereafter. In the pre-scientific era much time was spent on seeking overarching systems governed by gods, demons or other non-worldly spirits with varying characteristics and wishes. This is still going on today. Oracles and other supposedly insightful individuals were thought to own knowledge of and contact with the world beyond, telling people what would happen in different situations or if the commands of gods were disobeyed. The natural sciences seek completely different types of systems where order is decided through natural laws. In certain areas, mathematically defined laws of this type can often provide very exact predictions. Social scientists work with other types of comprehension, ones that tell us in other ways what we can expect from certain types of situations and thus provide us with means to react.

In the early history of the sciences the world was seen as strictly deterministic. Only intellectual limits kept humans from gaining total control of existence through understanding all rules that bind it. Today science teaches us the opposite – there are sequences in the world that are basically unpredictable. Our everyday lives will always lead us to situations for which no identifiable prediction system exists. Being prepared for such situations is just as important for our survival as finding the predictable rules. Our interaction with reality demands a capacity for improvisation, for dealing with a non-anticipated reality through unplanned action.

The ability to predict by defining systems and to improvise is both necessary for successful human interaction with the world. However, system seeking must never degenerate into a rigidity in the form of an exaggerated search for control, power, order, rules and intolerance against everything that falls outside one’s own, narrow framework. An attitude of improvisation implies a criticism and an alternative to this.

The word ‘improvisation’ comes from the Latin improvisus meaning unforeseen or unexpected. A large part of all music that has existed or exists has been and is improvised, including Indian raga, Spanish flamenco and the various African musical traditions. Even our Western classical music formerly contained significant improvisation, though today it is almost entirely written. Several of the masters of tradition were superb improvisers, including Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin. In our culture jazz is the clearly dominant form of improvised music.

It may be that human beings from different times and cultures have developed different forms of improvised music from a need to shape tools in part to understand unpredictable situations and in part to question and break up rigid systems.

An Example
The time is the early 50s. The Second World War is over as are the limitations it placed on people’s lives. A better, richer life is taking shape. One important part is the expansion of the educational system with its new opportunities. Persons with limited resources can get free schoolbooks and reduced fees. Free school meals are offered. Intellectual talent has become the most important condition for studies and success, rather than the parent’s finances.

A number of the young in society knew they would be changing societal class. Our parents were workers, farmers with smallholdings or lower level civil servants. There existed no learning tradition in our homes. But it was thought that we had good heads for studying and so we faced a long class trip whose goal most often was the ‘educated middle class’.

Class travel is no simple process. You can’t only shake off one social context with the lifestyle it presupposed and move into another, already defined one. A person who merely does this becomes no more than a poor imitation or a caricature. In order to be accepted in the new class one must contribute something new, which in turn calls for conceptual constructs, processes that form meaning and behaviour forms that exist in neither the old nor the new class. All this must be created in the no-man’s land between the classes. Successful class travel places great demands on vitality and creativity.

Both the point of departure and the goal of the class journey in question existed in rather rigid systems. Especially the ‘educated middle class’ was something rather narrow-minded, owning petrified norms and modes of behaviour. And even if we neither could nor wanted to accept all this unconditionally, we still had to find some way to relate to it. To accomplish that called for a preparedness facing the new and unpredictable, a capacity for understanding and, not least, to form new meaning constructs. The world we were to create was necessarily richer and more comprehensive than both the one we were leaving and the one we were heading to. This placed great pressure on the ability for liberation, vitality and creativity, as well as that preparedness for dealing with the unpredictable. These demands could not be satisfied in a vacuum.

However, jazz contained much of what we needed. The entire history of jazz can be seen as an increasingly thorough liberation from basic musical material. Much of the jazz played in the 50s was taken from musicals and films. The original structures were parsed by jazz into free melodic presentation, syncopated rhythms, new and more advanced harmonies and above all improvisation. New, technically and harmonically complicated melodies were created based on the basic material in the standard tunes. Taken together this created an atmosphere of self-confidence and sauciness.

The liberation from the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic base materials was often enough aided by irony. This not only affected the popular, musical base, but also jazz itself in its older, more established forms. The ironic version was considered superior to the original in accord with an aesthetic shared not only among the practitioners, but also by others. Stan Kenton’s version of Santa Lucia became what today would be called cult and we grooved unreservedly to Dizzy Gillespie’s Pop’s Confession, Donna Lee replaced Indiana, and Whispering by Groovin’ High. We used our own best talents to jazz up Gärdebylåten and Flickorna i Småland.

Irony generally implied working with double meanings, suggesting one thing while clearly meaning the exact opposite. Through its choice of many of its melodies, jazz seemed to stand with conventional music, but by changing the melodic presentation, the rhythms and harmonies the result was allowed to express criticism, alienation and repudiation. In the world beyond music this ironic distance often became not only a means to liberation from our origins, but also a weapon in our new class situation.

Still the most important part was the creative process. You could do whatever you wanted to a melody, changing its presentation, rhythm, tempo and harmonics – nothing was prescribed. The syncopated rhythms and dissonant sounds seemed much more vital and powerful than the more meek and mild popular music most of us grew up with. Most important the improvisation and musical collaboration shaped in us a capability for meeting and developing the unpredictable.

We did not stay in our original setting, nor did we accept a fully formed life style. We gained new possibilities and used them. Our world was to be larger than the one we left and we were not satisfied with just entering the new class we found. We transformed it. In this way classical music lost its monopoly as the music of the educated and it was no longer evident that academicians voted conservatively. The educated middle class would never more again be what it was.

Jazz was an important part of this process. It showed us that freedom can exist alongside rules and limitations, boundaries can be crossed, old structures broken up and new ones created.

Jazz became our practice fields.

Lennart Nilsson
(English translation by Sven Borei)


Lennart Nilsson: Sound – Music – Improvisation

Feb.13, 2010

Sound – Music – Improvisation

Problems and philosophical underpinnings

The primary human goal is to survive and to ensure that life is as bearable as possible. Understanding the reality s/he must deal with is an obvious necessity for attaining this. An important part of that understanding is to observe patterns, contexts and regularities. From these, people can shape their action preparedness.

This observation is based on a philosophical conception that what we call ’reality’ or the ’world’ is not something the exists objectively for us to discover, but rather something we are parties to creating using our tools for understanding. This also presupposes the existence of an existing objective something whose various parts differ in their state, independent of human understanding of them. However, understanding and describing some part of this always calls for some form of conceptualisation.

In other words, the patterns or images that people find in the world are in part a human creation. Animal behaviour is dominated by inborn reactions to selected stimuli. Humans, on the other hand, are proactive agents, shapers of images and concepts. As such learning, experience and creativity exist in humans to a much greater extent than in animals. Shaping new patterns to handle a constantly changing reality is an essential part of human activity, using mental aspects that on the whole are subconscious.

Human beings change chaos to cosmos through this image creating. S/he creates a survivable world and can settle in by understanding and controlling it to a sufficient extent. For this the human senses play a central role. It is highly likely that all tools for understanding are created via certain fundamental sense experiences, through which a ’natural understanding’ is decided by the condition of the sensual organs and the outer world. In this there are spatial concepts such as over and under, hither and yon, as far as … and temporal concepts such as before and after, now and future, as long as …

The continued conceptualisation creates new understanding based on the existing one. This in turn can later provide a vision of what is possible to understand and control. It can also offer metaphors and pure, contentless structures whereby an image from one part of the reality provides order for another. It is namely so that human intelligence is such that one and the same image can be used to structure several, different areas.

Below we shall discuss what one of our senses, namely the ear, can possibly contribute during the shaping of the human world. We shall investigate the role of the structured world of music as a creator of tools of understanding and how these can be applied to other parts of reality. Finally we shall discuss what special function improvised music might have in this context.

Worlds of the eye and the ear

In humans with intact sense organs these collaborate in shaping his or her world. We hear a sound and see its source. As an opening thought experience, however, let us see what world might be if created by the ear alone. But we will begin by describing a purified visual world so as to be able to define the aural world more sharply through contrast.

The world of the eye is three-dimensional space. In it are objects. These are somewhat clearly delimited from each other in their surfaces. They own what is called a numerical identity: this is one object and this is another. Objects own a tangible continuity in time and are sorted in rather constant patterns. One object can hide another. We can easily shut ourselves away from this world by closing our eyes. Visual phenomena, such as colour and shape, are characteristics of objects.

The reality presented us by the eye is known mainly by solidity, stability, constancy, lack of ambiguity and clarity. It is a comparably reliable world in which we normally feel secure. We gain early experience with a number of events in the visual world, ones we have rather good control over because of the relative predictability that governs.

Quite the contrary, the aural world does not contain objects, but events and processes. These structures are temporal rather than spatial, at least in that we are not dealing with the same defined spatial positions as among the objects of the eye. Nor is there the same sharp delimitation between them since it is not obvious what is two different sounds or what is the same sound with an altered character. Another difference is that it is not always clear if a sound is simple or complex, that is if it comes from one or more sources. This means that the numerical identity is not as tangible as in the visual world. Sound has very varied temporal continuity, though usually of considerably shorter duration than for objects.

The contemporary human aural world is constantly changing – one and the same sound alters characteristics, new sounds appear, old ones disappear and different sounds are blended – everything mostly outside our control. Sometimes it happens very quickly. Even large changes such as from absolute silence to ear-shattering alarms can happen in an instant. Unlike objects, one sound cannot ’hide’ another. It can drown it out, but this is a function of how the human ear is constructed, not on the aural world per se.

The aural world cannot be shut out as easily and efficiently as the world of the eye. Covering your ears is far from as effective as closing your eyes. Sound reaches us from all directions simultaneously. We can hear, but not see what is behind us.

This aural world affects us more physically than what the world of the eye does. A sound can make the body vibrate, feel comfort or discomfort, feelings a visual impression is more seldom prone to do. If, for example, a picture makes us physically ill, this depends on the content of the picture, that is our interpretation of it. Sound waves can affect us physically regardless of if we understand what they might stand for. In other words, we do not ’listen’ only with our ears, but with our whole body. There are times when the body is actually more important for sensing sound.

The phenomena of the ear are not as the eye’s the colour and shape characteristics of the objects, but something that emanates from these objects.

For the most part, the aural world does not have the solidity, stability, constancy, lack of ambiguity and clarity that mark the visual world. It is an unreliable world, one where we can easily feel insecure. We lack the same control over it as we have over the visual world since it owns a much more undefined structure and is considerably less predictable. For this reason, this world can easily be frightening. Anyone wishing to scare a small child will use terrible sounds. It is indeed more natural and much simpler to create terror using sound than to put on a certain visual aspect. A sound can make us jump in a way a visual experience seldom does.

Humans have contact with the aural world while still in the womb. Simple structures like regularities in rhythm, sound and intensity create the first rudimentary patterns in the baby’s foetal world. The mother’s heart beat, the rhythm in her walk and the sound of her voice are important parts of the foetus’ experiential world and probably creates some of the first and most fundamental tools for understanding in a human’s life.

Still at least in our culture, it is the world of the eye that plays the largest role in our daily understanding of reality. This understanding is mostly assisted by spatial metaphors. Even in much of science, seeing is the most important. Its world corresponds to an ideal of lucidity which, among other places, is expressed the scientific ideals of positivism.


Music is sometimes defined as ’structured sound’, a not too successful definition since there exists structured sound no one would think of calling music. Still, as the musical concepts of our culture are constantly broadening, in much through electronic techniques, no one knows what music will include tomorrow. However, in this article we will make it easy for ourselves and say that music is a type of structured sound.

In other words, music demonstrates that structure is possible in the aural world. Even if a structured world is not automatically a controlled one, there is still a greater possibility of some type of control, such as through predictability or affect. Therefore it is possible to say that music also demonstrates that control is possible in the aural world and that we should be able to understand music as a type of controlled sound.

Our daily aural world is naturally not completely unstructured. Neither the rush of a waterfall nor the automobile traffic at a stoplight is completely chaotic. A growing slice of today’s everyday existence is invaded by music. Still, even if the total sound experience of normal days usually is a mix of highly differentiated sounds, most of them have nothing to do with each other and in addition are outside our control. Many sounds are unexpected. For that reason we choose a somewhat simplified label for this world, calling it the unstructured aural world.

The structures of music shaped by humans depart from the structures of the visual world in several ways. This is so because they preserve several characteristics of the normal unstructured aural world.

Music consists of events and processes in temporal rather than spatial orders. Compared to objects, these events and processes have a short life span and a fuzzy numerical identity – what are two separate tones and what are one and the same with a different character? However, the structures of music are man-made and the constant changes they undergo are controlled, though not always consciously. Many musicians, mainly those playing improvised music, say that they play best when they disconnect consciousness and intellect, experiencing that they are ’being played’.

Usually musical sources are not multi-directional and can be excluded in other ways than the unstructured aural world. However, music affects us physically to an extent that exceeds the effect of the everyday aural world since its frequently regular rhythms make us want to move. A musical sound cannot cancel or remove another, existing rather simultaneously and creating in this way the sonorities of music in units that are greater than their separate elements.

In other words, music demonstrates that the aural world can be structured and controlled. In music, humans can experience how something chaotic, uncontrolled and frightening can be transformed into something ordered and controlled. It becomes possible to endure it, but also in certain cases even to enjoy it. Given this, it is not far to suggesting a vision that this can also happen in other parts of reality with the same or similar characteristics as the aural world.

One possible world of this type is the human inner world. For the sake of argument, let us say that it comprises feelings, suppositions, values and desires, all always tied to each other. Suppose that I am angry at P (feeling). This anger is based on my conviction (supposition) that several of P’s actions are morally reprehensible (values). I want to express my anger by causing P some type of discomfort (desire). We simplicity’s sake we can call such a complex FSVD or feeling/supposition /values/desire.

The inner world of a human owns no correspondences to the objects of the physical world. Rather its contents are more like events and processes. These are not clearly delimited one from the other and it is not obvious what should be seen as a new FSVD or as one that has existed earlier, though changed. Conflicting or seemingly conflicting FSVDs can exist side by side, making it possible to have positive and negative feelings for the same person at the same time.

This inner world is constantly changing and the various complexes have highly varied continuity. New complexes are created, old ones disappear, various complexes blend, changes that usually occur beyond our control. A shift in feelings can be instantaneous. One example is that a person can figuratively explode in anger. Even positive feelings such as love can happen very quickly – that proverbial ’click’.

The theories of psychoanalysis state that an FSVD can be excluded by being forced from the conscious level, but that such exclusion is merely illusory. The excluded complex continues to affect the person, though now outside conscious control. The same theories state that a complex cannot ’hide’ another either. Trying, for example, to ’cover up’ my feelings about P’s bad deeds by thinking about his good ones only means that these negative feelings are pushed into the subconscious where they can work freely and uncontrolled.

It is seldom easy to point out which complexes are fundamental to a person’s personality and which are less important. And we have learned through personal experience that different inner conditions can cause us to experience physical discomfort or comfort.

Someone’s inner world can easily become chaotic and hence uncontrollable. This leads to anxiety or other mental suffering, such as inability to act or non-functional action. An uncontrolled inner world can frighten us by giving full freedom to feelings and desires we do not understand and do not include in our self-image.

In other words, it is necessary to structure and control this world to avoid discomfort caused by it. As we have seen, music can suggest a vision that it is possible to create order in a world with approximately the same fundamental characteristics. At times music can even serve as a direct, conscious instrument for this. It is no coincidence that music therapy has had its greatest successes by helping give order to chaotic emotional lives. It is probably also true that ’ordinary’ musical enjoyment and practical involvement works in the same way without our conscious awareness of it. We simply experience the music as something positive without thinking about what the basis for this experience is. It could be that this feeling of comfort is derived from the fact that some internal disorder and lack of control has been transformed into order and control.

The fact that music suggests a possible structure for the inner world does not mean that music is the only instrument for creating one. Various forms of psychotherapy have the same goal. In the best of cases, the order and control that these instruments working in concert provide can bring insight into the initial stages of an FSVD – is it completely fair of me to detest P and want to hurt him for what he’s done. If it becomes possible to confess to and accept the existence of (seemingly) conflicting feelings, it can be possible to sort them out – I appreciate characteristic X in P, but detest characteristic Y. It is also possible that the dynamic structures inherent in music can provide models for understanding emotional shifts and swings through demonstration and acceptance of such opposites as movement-rest, growing-receding, conflict-conflict resolution, tension-relaxation, agreement-difference, preparation-implementation, irritation-calmness, constancy-change and harmony-dissonance.

Just as music comprises many of the fundamental characteristics of an everyday unstructured aural world, so will an ordered, controlled inner world retain several of the characteristics found in a chaotic one. The complexes are not clearly separated, but are in a constant flux where new ones grow, old ones disappear or are pushed back. Since we cannot shield ourselves from them, they affect us physically.

By using relevant concepts, we can see and accept the structure and content of this world as we gain some sort of control over it. Control in this case does not only mean a conscious capacity for causing change, especially since that is seldom possible when it comes to one’s inner world. Rather what we are talking about is control in a weaker sense. Through basic knowledge of how this world functions, it becomes possible to predict certain sequences or at least to confirm their plausibility after the fact, thus making them easier to deal with. For example, it is easier to deal with a problematic love relationship if you know that love does not resemble what the soap operas suggest, namely a rather sharply defined condition you either are in or not. In other words, when it comes to understanding and dealing with an feeling like love and the relationships tied to it, a model such as the world of the eye is not particularly useful. It is necessary to be able to shake it off.

Some parts of reality are such that understanding and dealing with them using a model based on the world of the eye is highly appropriate. Other parts, however, own such characteristics that such models are unsuitable and confusing.

Creativity and progress in human thinking almost always include some emancipation from habitual ways of thinking, frequently those based on models from the world of the eye. An example is that spatial metaphors are common in our conceptualisations in various areas, including the inner world. However, people have often had the painful experience of seeing that it cannot be so, that further progress is not possible within that framework. In other words, the mental models derived from the common sense world of the eye, what philosophy calls naive realism, are simply insufficient. Further advances call for new concepts and new ways of understanding. In some of these situations a workable model could be derived from how music structures the aural world.

As we have seen, such a step is fully probable when it comes to the human inner world. Other areas surely exist. For example, it is not impossible that the human vision of social order originally came from music. And maybe still does. While it is probably true that the human social sphere or society never really was totally chaotic, this is also true of the aural world. Still there are many shared structural characteristics. The processes and how things happen in the social sphere are not sharply delimited. It is frequently difficult to discern what connects with what and in which way. Gatherings and groupings arise, disappear and mix. Most people find it difficult to point to where the most important groupings (centres of power, for example) are and there are constant shifts. The continuity in these different groups is highly variable. They can dissolve and shift character, sometimes instantaneously. In this way a friend or a friendly grouping can in one moment become an enemy or an hostile gathering, though much less often the reverse. An individual can demonstrate unexpected characteristics, at times better than we thought though more often worse. This kind of context is hard to get a grip on, unreliable and sometimes frightening. It is one where we always must be on our guard.

This description is not of some possible, more or less primitive social situation in the early stages of mankind. It clearly applies to today’s over-organised, western society where the gap between structure and control is evident. The structures exist, but they are often hard to identify and even harder to control. A thoroughly developed organisation in no way excludes feelings of chaos and powerlessness.


In other words, music offers a vision that suggests the possibility to structure and control those parts of reality with the same or similar characteristics as the aural world. We have seen examples of this in the human mental and social spheres. For the former, music can also function as a tool to create needed order, both through music therapy and through ’ordinary’ listening and playing. It is also possible for music to function as a tool for building society. (See Music is not a mirror, it’s a hammer, pg. 124).

Humans need existing patterns to use and complete concepts to apply in order to understand and deal with existence. While these provide safety and security, they also of necessity constitute a limitation or even a direct hinder. The surrounding world is constantly changing, requiring demolishing and replacing the old tools for understanding, those that have shaped many habitual patterns. We are always in need of preparedness for meeting the unexpected, times when there are no patterns to apply, be they habitual or new.

There is structure in all music. Creating new ones is not the province of any specific musical genre or type, nor of music as an art form. It can happen equally well within dance, painting or literature, as well as outside the arts. However, improvised music commands a special position in that the structures are created the moment the music is performed. This means that improvisation offers a more far-reaching vision than music as a whole. It points to the possibility inherent in immediate structural creation where no prepared tools are available. The individual human is quite capable of doing this him or her self in the very moment when the need arises.

Still, we must be aware that the improvisation concept is a broad one. It exists in many musical genres. Even with the same form, such as jazz, it can be more or less connected with a specific musical language and controlled by rules for what is or is not allowed, what is or is not good music. At one end of what is called jazz improvisation one finds a mechanical repetition of standard phrases. Here it is highly dubious if the name ’improvisation’ is even relevant.

At the other end of this spectrum are extremely serious attempts at liberation from different limitations and boundaries, but here it is equally dubious if the term ’jazz’ is applicable for here the focus is to distance oneself from such concepts as recognisability, tradition and security. In this way the concept improvisation becomes a problem, with the discussion focusing on such questions as how free an improvisation can be, what total freedom might include and if total freedom even is possible. This searching and these insights are then implemented in a musical expression.

This problematisation questions not only the prepared structure in music, but also the more conventional rules and frameworks of improvisation. In this there is creation of structure that simultaneously comprises the breaking down of hinders and a far-reaching liberation.

This vision taken from improvised music can at a minimum be applied to those areas outside of music we have looked at so far, meaning human mental and social spheres. However much order we may have achieved in these spheres with or without help from music, we still come up against the unexpected or that which does not lend itself to being handled using ready patterns. Improvisation illustrates that adequate structures can be created at the moment needed, thereby providing another type of action preparedness than that offered by habitual structures. But it goes even further.

When it comes to the mental sphere, we are not only offered a vision of how we can meet and master the unexpected, but also how we can break down the stagnated, sterile patterns that prevent us from growing and developing. We can create something new and vibrant in the exact moment when we need to do so.

Improvisation offers a vision of questioning and demolishing the old, petrified patterns and building up something new even in the human social sphere. In spite of the fact the individual improviser seldom or never thinks about this in the creative moment, there is an implicit opposition to the governing order in all improvisation worthy of the name. The vision suggests the possibility for creating a new social order, a society where people do not feel controlled and threatened by powers outside his or her control. Individuals are part of the creating and participate in the social construction. Free intercourse with music, including both listening and playing, can lead to freedom in thinking and acting.

This critical, questioning and visionary strength must exist in all societies that do not wish to stop developing. Obviously improvised music is only part of such a strength, necessary, though not sufficient. However, the necessity means that a society that allows its music to become petrified, dooms itself to stagnation.


Translation by Sven H.E. Borei


Feb.13, 2010

Ulf Olsson

”A library of sounds” – that is how Mats Gustafsson once described the knowledge and ability that the improvising musician possesses. A library made up not of written sheets of music, of notation, but of the possibilities that the body offers the musician. It is within the body that sound is stored: in the bodies of musician and instrument respectively. Improvising is, then, to actualize that library of sound.
For a long time you could speak of Mats Gustafsson as a “saxophone player”. He left his northern hometown Umeå at an early age, moved to Stockholm, locked himself up inside a soundproof wardrobe, and practiced on that instrument for a couple of years. He wanted to become a saxophone machine, a machine worker impossible to distinguish from his machine, the instrument.
But leaving the wardrobe, he started to play – silence. Playing is also knowing when not to play. To wait for the sound. To let the sound rest. I know of no other musician who can play, and play with and against, silence, like Gustafsson. And then silence becomes an expressive part of his music.
At the same time, the instrument makes demands its own. The saxophone is a machine, and the musician a worker at his machine, he is the one forced to go to work every night. Every day he has to put his mouth to the mouthpiece and breathe life into the machine.
With time, the music of Mats Gustafsson becomes physical, beautiful, repulsive, powerful: bodily, most of all. Watching him perform on stage, you realize his closeness to dance and choreography. His relation to his instrument is that of a dancer. A body in motion, moving in space. There is no given closeness between man and his machine; it must be produced anew, every day.
The saxophone machine forces the musician to a take a stand. The saxophone includes within it everyone that has played on it before: the tradition. And every time you pick up the instrument, the musician must ask him- or herself: give in to tradition, consciously or unconsciously – or try to do the impossible: invent the instrument again? Mats Gustafsson has always chosen the latter alternative.
Deeply oriented in tradition, familiar with all those who have made the instrument possible to play, Gustafsson still creates ongoing situations where the musician must initiate a new relation to the instrument. He does it very concretely: playing on the mouthpiece only. Or through playing on an instrument of his own making, the flutophone, or playing the impossible-to-play-on glide saxophone. Or stopping the sound from leaving the instrument by holding it against his thigh. Or playing in an acoustic situation where the sound is so high that the only remaining possibility is to scream through the instrument.
And through arranging situations that force the musicians to move outside their normal ways of playing. Improvisation not as playing whatever enters your mind, but playing what is made possible by the situation. Free improvisation is based on the library of sound and the saxophone machine, it has always been prepared in that configuration, and it presupposes a script, realized or not, that does not notate what the musician should be playing, but opens a space for him or her to explore. The improvising musician then has to situate the resulting music: make room for it; bring it into a material shape.
It all comes down to an attitude toward sound and the world where that sound is to be listened to, the context in which music sounds. Mats Gustafsson became a listener, the musician who is always listening for the spaces in between, the narrow gaps and openings, the possibilities. And those possibilities are often to be found in other spaces, in new constellations. Don’t ever be scared of trying: playing solo or in a group, play for or play against. That is why the musician is not only an instrumentalist; he is also an agitator. And an organizer. Mats Gustafsson belongs to the kind of musician that is constantly looking for new spaces, and if they are not to be found, he tries to create them. He sees to that the most remarkable music can be heard in small provincial towns of Sweden as well as in London or New York.
Mats Gustafsson has become an international star within improvised music. His discography is already impossible to take in; he has played with almost every name within this type of music. But throughout this career, all along the way, he has slowly and firmly been moving into a new position: the improvising musician becomes a sound artist.
The foundation is broadened. What was from the start an obsession with sounds and, most of all, with his own, has become something larger, wider. But all the time, this search is situated within something tangible, material, physical. It is not by accident that Gustafsson is one of those artists that, in re-establishing contact with the improvised music of the Sixties, also have come to engage with its avant-garde poetry, to art as a happening. There, in something happening, sound improvisation and words meet and form something new, something else.
Or, a shape of music to come.
This text was originally an oral presentation of Mats Gustafsson, broadcasted by the Swedish Radio Channel One on May 7, 2005. – Ulf Olsson is a professor of Comparative Literature at Stockholm University. He has also published extensively – but in Swedish – on improvised music, from The Grateful Dead via John Coltrane to Anthony Braxton.


Feb.13, 2010

“Music has existed before the dawn of man, before the creation of our universe and is the only common thread that exists between all societies and cultures. Only music alone has the power to communicate through our differences in religion and politics. It is by virtue of music that we can break through the bridges of cultural intolerance and find the wisdom to understand and focus on the things we have in common, and not on the matter that separates us. Nothing exists that is more powerful than music…”