Thursday, 17 December 2015

Torturing the Saxophone

In 2014, celebrated Swedish free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson sent a copy of his forthcoming album to one of his idols, the legendary comic book artist, record collector and musician Robert Crumb. Gustafsson’s upcoming record was a compilation of his experimental interpretations of some jazz classics by people such as Duke Ellington, Lars Gullin, and the Ayler brothers, and he sought Crumb’s opinion. Crumb, baffled, pulled no punches and responded with this brutally honest letter. In honour of the critique, Gustafsson named his next album Torturing the Saxophone, and proudly reprinted the letter amongst the liner notes.

(This letter features in the More Letters of Note book alongside many other fascinating pieces of correspondence -- more info at Books of Note. Huge thanks to Robert Crumb. Image above, of Robert Crumb in 2011, by Marcelo Braga.)


I finally gave a listen to those LPs and the CD you sent me, of your own saxophone playing and some Swedish modern jazz. I gotta tell you, on the cover of the CD of your sax playing, which is black and has no text on it, I wrote in large block letters, in silver ink, “Torturing The saxophone—Mats Gustafsson.” I just totally fail to find anything enjoyable about this, or to see what this has to do with music as I understand it, or what in God´s name is going on in your head that you want to make such noises on a musical instrument. Quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at what a negative, unpleasant experience it was, listening to it. I had to take it off long before it reached the end. I just don´t get it. I don’t understand what it is about.

You actually go on TOUR with that stuff. WOW. People actually... sit… and... LISTEN… to that. I mean, they voluntarily go to the place, maybe even PAY… PAY to hear that stuff. And then they sit there, quietly, politely… and LISTEN. Unbelievable. I should go myself sometime and see this. Witness it with my own eyes.

I don´t say these things with the intention to insult you. You seem to be a perfectly nice, civilized guy with a good sense of humor. I am speaking the plain truth of my reaction to the records and CD you sent. That this noise could give anyone any aesthetic pleasure is beyond my comprehension, truly. Is this the logical end of improvisational music? Is this where it ends up? Where does it go from this point? Is there any audience for this “free jazz” besides other guys who play it and maybe their wives who must patiently endure it?

I just don´t get it. Am I too un-hip? Am I a square from Delaware? A thick from Battle Crick? A shmuck from Keokuck?

—R. Crumb