A Liminal Review: Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Mesele Asmamaw – Baro 101 (February 15th, 2012)

Collaborations like this one are a dime a dozen in the world of free improv / free jazz, but few have the delightful energy of Baro 101, an impromptu session in a hotel room by Norwegian drummer extraordinaire Paal Nilssen-Love, Swedish sax legend Mats Gustafsson and Ethiopian krar virtuoso Mesele Asmamaw. Nilssen-Love and Gustafsson were in Addis Ababa with Dutch post-rock-turned-avant-garde outfit The Ex, and were so enamoured with the sounds they encountered in the East African country that they organised an impromptu recording session in The Ex’s hotel room at Hotel Baro. The results are astounding.

Of course, the element that elevates this collaboration above most of the rest of the current improv scene is Mesele Asmamaw’s krar, a bowled lyre-like stringed instrument that is amplified here to allow Asmamaw to compete with the raucous energy of his two compadres. It’s sound is positively random, in the sense used by today’s youth, a weird wah-ing warble that sashays and stumbles around the sax and drums, lending the album a curious, exotic quality.

The album kicks off in pretty typical improv fashion, with a metallic drum clatter, random honks on the sax and the krar sounding like a wire rope that’s being stretched to breaking point. But before long, ‘Baro 101 – A’ proves to be the jazziest of the two pieces, as Gustafsson leads the charge with some soulful and rambunctious repeated squalls and Nilssen-Love kicks up a veritable shit-storm of percussion over Asmamaw’s sliding lines on the krar. The trio then locks into a quasi-martial groove, coming on like a stripped-down and brittle version of Albert Ayler’s marching band take on free jazz, with insistent drums, and terrific call-and-response motifs from the sax and the krar. This being improv, things never settle for long, the grooves and melodies sliding in and out, moving between restrained silence punctuated by random dissonance (including ecstatic shouting from one of the musicians) and full-on hard-bop raucousness. The connection between the musicians feels positively telepathic, especially in the final coda, when they slowly and sensuously build into a jazz-funk finale, channeling the spirit of early Funkadelic, even, with Asmamaw’s hazy, abrupt krar solos sounding almost like Bootsy Collins’ keyboard.

The second piece is even more outlandish, throwing off jazz conventions for a full-blown collision of European improv and traditional Ethiopian music. Free improv is often considered to be the sole domain of Western (and Japanese) musicians, with “world” artists somewhat condescendingly considered to mostly be interested in their native folk and religious musics. Asmamaw puts the lie to this outdated notion with ease, matching his European peers in the improv stakes before jumping in with some impassioned vocals that upends the piece onto its head. Without Asmamaw, this could have been an album of excellent, but standard free jazz/improv. But with the Ethiopian on board, it ultimately breaks free of any conventions, almost creating a new form of music altogether. Credit to Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love for opening themselves up so completely, and of course you can only sit back and admire the sheer brilliance of all three musicians. Nilssen-Love’s drumming shifts effortlessly between delicate patters and full-blown thundering of the toms. Gustafsson is often noted for his firebrand approach to free jazz, but here he is impeccably subtle, wrenching soulful parps and bleats out of his horn before darting into elegant, Coltrane-ian solos and distorted blasts of sax noise. And Asmamaw gives the full range of his unusual instrument’s sound, from warbling riffs to humming bass lines.

Baro 101 totally undermines the notion that improv is a stale, overly-intellectualised genre for Western, coffee-swilling virtuosos. It’s warm and it swings, engaging and challenging at once. This is, to me, what improv should be, and I would happily place Baro 101 alongside the seminal works of Peter Brotzmann, AMM and John Russell. Time will tell if this has quite the impact those guys did, but I certainly hope so.

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