REVIEW: Fire! Orchestra at The Laundry in Hackney

Mats Gustafsson. Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved


Fire! Orchestra
(The Laundry. 26 September 2014; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

This was the first British performance by Fire! Orchestra, the 28 piece ensemble which is the brainchild of Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson with his co-musicians in the Fire! trio, Andreas Werliin and Johan Berthling. Nothing could have quite prepared the Hackney audience for the group's extraordinary dynamism, creativity and sheer sledgehammer impact.

What had been 'a typical 3 am decision ... chilling in a bar' had grown in to 'an amazing beast', as Mats put it in our preview interview, following in the pioneering footsteps of large experimental jazz groups such as the Jazz Composers Orchestra, Global Unity Orchestra and the Sun Ra Arkestra .

Martin Hederos's emphatic opening organ riff set all those packed in to The Laundry's concrete bunker on a tempestuous, exhilarating voyage through the complex groupings and sound structures of Enter, the major, four part work composed by the Fire! trio and singer Mariam Wallentin.

The three vocalists set down soulful, tense chants and wails as the ensemble built up the driving, layered momentum that would underscore the entire performance.

With Gustafsson conducting, arms flying, fingers held up to convey directives, his communication was instantaneous as he navigating the course between slabs of crushing electronic distortion, electrifying brass and percussion power punches and a disarmingly refreshed, retro prog-jazz undercurrent heaved knowingly into the twenty-first century.

In the interview, Gustafsson had talked about 'the riff-based structures ... How to lock a groove and open it up without losing direction, focus or energy' being at the core and it was, indeed, these locked grooves that channelled a primal force which kept the whole ensemble of extraordinary musicians melded together and fully in synch.

It was a exploding confection of textures, impassioned expression and virtuosity, mixing Mats Älenklint's razor sharp brass arrangements with spells of spontaneous combustion as individuals came to the fore to improvise, dish up surprises, then drop back in to the flow.

Sofia Jernberg's solo vocals were utterly extraordinary, pushing into a paranormal range with perfect pitch and clarity. Her utterances and vocalisations challenged description, as she shared ground with Joachim Nordwall's shuddering dinosaur rumblings and Berthling's clanging electric bass.

Gustafsson's driving tenor sax spells (echoes of the unflagging intensity of Peter Brötzmann, who was at the venue) and, from the back row, Anna Högberg's alto pushed at the edges, while Malin Wättring's tenor created strong, yet softer shapes alongside the four bristling trumpeters. There were mini-highlights galore - Per Ake Homander's quietly powered tuba, Martin Andreas Söderstom's pedal steel and e-bow electronics, the three drummers punching out the pulse and adding embellishments, and a grizzly noise spot from of Hederos and Andreas Bethling, amongst them.

In the encore - a section of Exit! (the forerunner of Enter) - vocalists Simon Ohlsson, Jernberg and Wallentin brought obliquely offbeat synchronisations to the supercharged funk/punk thread which took the orchestra out on a phenomenal high.

The power of this massive group was inescapable - total energy, total noise, huge sound, but with Gustafsson always in control, they never veered off course. Ultimately about the 'voice' of an essential humanity, the experience had an overwhelmingly uplifting spirit. Summed up best in Gustafsson's own words, '... an important part of the Orchestra, [is] to do the impossible, in these times of confusion and stupidities, globally and locally, it IS important to do things. TO DO things. We try. And we enjoy trying.'

Morphosis opened with a strong set of pulsed electronics behind which he wove a web of finely honed micro-tones and samples with calm precision, recalling his collaborations with Charles Cohen, seen earlier in the year at Cafe Oto.

Fire! Orchestra personnel

Mariam Wallentin, Simon Ohlsson, Sofia Jernberg (voice), Niklas Barnö, Magnus Broo, Goran Kajfes, Emil Strandberg (trumpet), Mats Äleklint (trombone), Per Åke Holmlander (tuba), Anna Högberg (alto sax), Mats Gustafsson, Elin Larsson, Malin Wättring (tenor sax), Jonas Kullhammar (bass sax), Martin Küchen (baritone sax), Fredrik Ljungkvist (baritone sax, clarinet), Christer Bothén (bass clarinet, guimbri), Andreas Söderström, Sören Runolf, David Stackenäs (guitar), Sten Sandell (synthesizer and harmonium, piano), Martin Hederos, (organ, keyboards), Joachim Nordwall (electronics), Johan Berthling (el bass), Joel Grip, Dan Berglund (bass), Andreas Werliin, Johan Holmegard, Raymond Strid (drums)

Fire! Orchestra website / 'Enter' CD/LP is on Rune Grammofon

Produced by the Barbican in association with Cafe Oto and Qu Junktions


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