interview by sammy stein

Jan.20, 2013

Artist Profile: Mats Gustafsson – A Free Man


published here:

Mats Gustafsson and Thurston Moore at Café Oto. September 2012.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved


Mats Gustafsson, the Swedish saxophone player, now based in Austria is a powerhouse, a passionate and diverse musician. Since 2009 he has been involved in his FIRE! project, delivering sets of power and passion to audiences across Europe. He played in 2011 at Cafe Oto, London with Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark as Sonora during Brötzmann’s Tentet residency, and more recently played at the same venue with Thurston Moore.

Mats sees music as a great tool for communication. He continues to push boundaries, developing his own style and way of playing, and can speak fervently about his wish to ignore set preconceptions, to take music to new levels, and to reach more people.

He was brought up on the improvised free jazz sounds of Europe, but is committed to incorporating sounds with influences from all over the world. In an email exchange, we discussed his influences, where he feels free music is going and the challenges for the future:


Inspiration for Mats came from a surprising source. He says, “What got me going when I was about 16 years old was that amazing sax sound behind the great raspy voice of Richard Wayne Penniman (AKA Little Richard) on those early Specialty recordings. Other heavy DNA- changing reasons to follow the path of free music have been Lars Gullin, Brötzmann, Ayler, Bunk Johnson and Bengt Nordström. A bit later I understood what Evan Parker was talking about, ’My roots are in my record player’. I try to combine these truths on my own path”

Initially, Mats took up the flute, followed by the electric piano, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, contrabass saxophones,?fluteophones,?flutes,?weevil sax,?amplified saxophone & live-electronics (according to HIS WEBSITE) but now says, ” I am now trying to deal with all of them but my main focus is on the baritone and tenor sax”.


“In the whole history of jazz”, he says, “there has been a striving for freedom in one way or another to improvise music until we get to what you call free form and free jazz. I prefer to play music where I feel challenged; music that kicks my mind and ass in new directions. What other people call the music, I don’t care. For me it is important with a certain element of improvisation in the music and that I really interact with the other people on (or off) stage.

Freeform was, for me, a very logical development of the music we had before and it was primarily for both political and artistic reasons that the music opened up and deepened. It was necessary after be-bop and hard-bop on one side and the extreme notation systems of contemporary classical music on the other. The only way to go was towards the open forms with electronic music, free jazz and more ideas- based music with, for instance, flux connection. In the ’60s when freeform really emerged, there was similar experimentation in other art forms like the theatre, dance, poetry, art and other fields.” (Brötzmann confirmed this when he commented recently to me that he was influenced by working with artists like John Cage). Mats says, ” Some players, of course, had a very direct connection to the political situation at the time but free form jazz, with some exceptions, did not have sharp connections politically”. To sum up, Mats says, ”No one is free. You create your own freedom. ’Form’ is what you do with others. Free forms you. ‘Free form’. ”And there you have it.

Many jazz musicians who play free form find themselves playing other genres purely to make enough money to keep going but Mats is adamant there should be no compromise with musicians playing other genres simply to make a living. His reaction is, “No way! We need to fight the stupidity back to where it belongs, ha ha! Really, for me, I would rather just work at a gas station or a factory (as I did for some years) and make the music that I want and need to do. I can only do music that I’m challenged by and that makes me develop as a musician and as a person. Music gives me new perspectives, with the help of others! Music and art is way too important for me to make any compromises.”

Mats Gustafsson playing slide saxophone at Café Oto. April 2010.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved


Mats is a self-confessed hopeless discaholic and listens to a huge range of music . He says, “I eat anything on vinyl. ’A piece of vinyl a day keeps the doctor away’, as my dear colleague Olof Madsen used to say! I need my daily fix of vinyls/CDs with steaming be–bop, garage rock, west coast jazz and sound poetry! This morning on the turntable were a Bengt Nordström sax solo, Lars Werner and Christer Boustedt, some early Sun Ra on Saturn, Warne Marsh, Sten Hansson and Leif Elggren’s epic recordings made under Freud’s sofa in London” Classical composers also feature in Mats’ listening including, as he says, “anyone that kicks my ass (and mind). Recent ‘kickers’ include Dror Feiler, Pierre Henry, Ferneyhough, Staier’s recordings of Schubert´s piano music, Glenn Gould playing J.S. Bach (‘Always and Forever’) and Lachenmann of course.”


When asked about how he feels about the current jazz scene in the UK/Europe Mats is confident yet adds riders. “It depends of course on how you define ‘jazz’ (he laughs) but regarding this creative music scene, as we call it, the ‘jazz’ I think that the situation is very bad, from an economical and work situation viewpoint. Many countries are cutting cultural budgets hard in order to save their own asses and this is having a severe effect right now.

On the other hand, the scene is more interesting then ever. There are so many more young players active now playing free and experimental music. You can’t even compare today to the ’70s or ’60s. The scene has never been so interesting and creative. More people are arriving to free form playing from a huge variety of places and backgrounds (electronic, rock, folk, rock and pop) and not just from a straight jazz background. I have to say I look to the future in a very positive way. There is a very fresh blend of different generations and also different musical dialects at the moment – I love it! There is so much creativity in the former Eastern European countries, such as Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and, Slovakia where there is a huge and young audience with a big and healthy appetite! There is a lot going on at the moment! We just need to put the light on it and make politicians and others aware of these amazing human resources!”


For Mats, the future holds endless possibilities. He is the eternal optimist and considers music the way forward. He is a consummate musician and has the energy and ability to bring vibrancy and passion to recordings, concerts and projects. Mats is never still, he tours regularly, plays with a variety of fellow musicians and forms his own record labels just to get the music across to more people. He says, “There are always new things around the next corner… if you stay open, hungry and curious enough! Shedloads of projects are planned at the moment and it is hard to mention just a few… ( laughs). But there are intense plans right now with The Thing, FIRE! (including the 30 – piece Fire! Orchestra), Swedish jazz, Thurston Moore, Neneh Cherry (Don’s Step daughter with whom he has worked regularly, a new version of the Nu – ensemble, the Barry Guy New Orchestra and of course the 25th (!!!) anniversary of GUSHin May 2013! Gush is Mats’ trio, formed in 1986, when Mats joined forces with drummer Raymond Strid and pianist Sten Sandell). And there will of course show up new things that I m not aware of as of now… you just have to see/ hear it comin´!

Mats Gustafsson, from The Thing at Vortex. November 2010.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved


Asked how he feels when he plays, Mats says, “A local presenter asked me in northern Norway after a gig with Fire!: – ‘What is this music all about’ ? – ‘It is about life’, I told her. When the music really works… no analyses are necessary. It is more a state of mind. It is all about communication.”

What drives Mats is an unquenchable thirst for musical development. His philosophy, simply is, “Music is like living, but better” and this is something Mats has told me before – it is his mantra for life. He decides to elaborate. “This music is about sharing, on all levels possible- sharing, listening and interacting. If you can learn how to listen freely, then you can learn to play freely, and then you can learn how to think freely and, finally, to act freely. This is very clear to me. This is also the reason why I play this music. It is a political act in itself. Sharing is about politics. Therefore, I share…”

For Mats, playing free jazz is tantamount to his reason for living. “We do this” he says, “to really become ‘one’ with the music and the ones you play with; to become in the same state of mind. It is really hard to describe but you know when it is happening; that is for sure. This interaction between people is something rather unique. I play music because I have to; I have no choice, in order to fight the stupidity back and to show new perspectives, new ways, and new doors. Influences might be basically anything that kicks me and that I can make into a personal statement. As long as you put your own personal language/ voice into it and don’t try to imitate or copy, you are cool, you are good. If you make music for other reasons, you ought to stay at home (laughs). I am not here to entertain.”

And yet, Mats does entertain. It is rare to meet such a passionate, ardent musician who truly believes in what he does. Mats and his generation are becoming the new vanguard of free music and it is the hope of many, that they will take it to new levels, reach a wider audience and make free music truly free, as it should be.