Sunday 14 February 2010

The Ex

The Deaf Institute, Manchester, Thursday, Feb 4

The UK tour coincides with a 2CD set, 30, a collection to commemorate thirty years of Dutch punk group, The Ex. This counts as longlife in anyone's book; obviously something so strong could not readily be relinquished. Enjoyment pervades the music, which is surprising because the starting point is that patented punk emotion, anomie. But broad smiles, glee as guys crashed into each other, the general delight in clangour and the belief that even apocalypse can to be taken lightly were all redeeming qualities of punk.

The Ex maintain this tradition. They add something new. A feeling of adventurousness, perhaps, and a willingness to engage in all kinds of unlikely alliances. In the early nineties, they hooked up with the late Tom Cora, an improvising cello-player with the eloquent tone of a classical musician. Here, it's the turn of Brass Unbound, a gang of hardcore internationalist free-jazzers, and, it must be admitted, the collaboration is a triumph.

How does it work? The guys mesh guitars in three-part formation, each playing a integral though discrete part. They interlock, or drop in and out, or crash into one another, but all with a sense of spaciousness, rare in punk. At the centre of it all, and preventing any hint of stasis, is drummer Katherina Bornefeld, surely one of the best drummers in the world. When Katherina locks into a groove, it stays locked. She is a whole Burundi drum choir in one.

The singer, Arnold de Boer, is barking and shouting, and slipping in and out of trance, like an Ian Curtis with the secret of joy. State of Shock, ostensibly about inner-city alienation, becomes something else - a cry of ecstasy.

The combination of form, freedom and surrender fits nicely into the jazz improv aesthetic. Brass Unbound - individually Mats Gustafsson, Roy Paci, Ken Vandermark and Wolter Wierbos - fling themselves into the music, literally in the case of trombonist Wierbos, who pogoes and whirls as to the manner born. Paci's trumpet, in a higher tonal register than his brassy playmates, cuts through the rumble like a scythe. He sometimes resembles a mariachi musician, in his declamatory majesty. Perhaps the single most compelling moment of the show came with Gustafsson's unaccompanied baritone solo: it's unlovely tone and primal force reminded of a regenerate Albert Ayler.

Punk and free jazz, on this occasion at least, were ideal bedfellows. It seemed that their combined strengths - of passion, innovation and intuition - cancelled out the supposed weakness of free jazz. There were no longueurs with Kath about. And then there were the interludes when she sang, and a kind of East European folksiness entered the proceedings. The Ex seem open to anything: the braying polyphony of the horns even had the spirit of New Orleans, albeit a wildly abandoned and fierce parallel-universe-New-Orleans. Suddenly this viewer had a vision of a new kind of jazz fusion: one that simultaneously celebrated and shredded all the music that had gone before. Seriously, it was a gig of a lifetime.

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