A Tortured Critic Responds to a Tortured Saxophone

Mats Gustafsson critics saxophones jazz Robert Crumb letters

Is honesty really the best policy? Unquestionably, it is wrong to be untruthful. Just the same, there are times when the better approach might be silence — or at least honesty coupled with a generous dose of tact.

Swedish jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson was eager for one of his idols to hear his recently-completed album. It was a compilation of his interpretations of some jazz classics by such legendary artists as Duke Ellington, Lars Guilin, and the Ayler Brothers.

In 2014, he sent a copy to musician and comic book artist Robert Crumb, hoping to receive words of affirmation and approval from the man whose opinion meant so much to him. What he received was not exactly what he had hoped for.

Crumb pulled no punches by writing back and telling his admirer exactly what he thought:


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

Not to be dissuaded from his passion, Gustafsson named his next album, Torturing the Saxophone (buy it on Amazon here) and reprinted Crumb’s letter in the liner notes.

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