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Joe McPhee / John Butcher: At The Hill Of James Magee (Trost Records)

Two legendary saxophonists--New York's Joe McPhee on alto and UK's John Butcher on tenor--meet at "The Hill" in the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, where artist James Magee is building a set of raised buildings arranged on the compass points to house his work, providing fascinating resonant properties for McPhee & Butcher's exceptional interaction. ... Click to View


FULL BLAST: Rio [VINYL] (Trost Records)

A limited live album from German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann's long-running Full Blast trio with the precise and dynamic Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas on electric bass and Michael Wertmuller on drums, captured at Audio Rebel, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016 as they tear through a tumultuous set of five burning improvisations of passionate playing. ... Click to View


Burkhard Beins / Mazen Kerbaj / Michael Vorfeld: Sawt Out (Herbal International)

Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, known from "A" Trio and collaborations with Franz Hautzinger, Toshimaru Nakamura, Birgit Uhler, &c., here joins two Berlin percussionist--Burkhard Beins and Michael Vorfeld--both members of Berlin Echtzeitmusik, to record this fascinating studio album of extraordinary technique and sonic control. ... Click to View


Axioms: Manifestations (Evil Clown)

Boston's Evil Clown led by reedist/multi-instrumentalist David Peck introduces a new ensemble, Axioms, a quartet with Peck, Jane, Alby onBass, and Joel Simches in a mammoth work of mysterious intent and rich sonorities, orchestrated with reeds, brass, daxophones, percussion, bells and chimes, electric bass, keys, spoken word, and real-time signal processing. ... Click to View


Derek Bailey & Cyro Baptista: Cyro [VINYL 2 LPs] (Honest Jons Records)

Reissuing the 1st CD on UK free improvising guitarist Derek Bailey's Incus label is this 1982 duo with Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, a remarkable dialog that draws percussive qualities from Bailey and lyrical aspects from Baptista, as the two push each other into inventive and exotic exchanges in an exuberant album; an incredible start to the Incus imprint. ... Click to View


Derek Bailey / Tony Coe: Time [VINYL 2 LPs] (Honest Jons Records)

An unusual pairing between UK non-idiomatic improvising legend Derek Bailey and French clarinetist Tony Coe, best known for his work with Franz Koglmann (heard on Hatology) his work with Tony Oxley, and work in avant classical settings; here they find common ground in a miniature chamber improv approach of both technical virtuosity and atonal lyricism. ... Click to View


Phill Niblock: T H I R [DVD] (Von)

Named for "Ten Hundred Inch Radii", a performance of film and music from the series "Environments" by composer and filmaker Phill Niblocks, shot in upstate New York in 1972 and released now for the first time on DVD, a mesmerizing and hypnotic film with two soundtracks: the original 1972 from analog tape, and a 2008 edition from the Nelly Boyd Ensemble updated in 2015 ... Click to View


John McCowen: Mundanas I - V (Edition Wandelweiser Records)

Two clarinetists--John McCowen, also the composer, and Madison Greenstone on clarinet & bass clarinet--taking the title from Boethius' (427-524 AD) printed work on ancient Greek music: "De institutione musica", as they generate long-form drones using the harmonic interactions and interference patterns of similar tones, overtones, and difference tones; impressively intense. ... Click to View


Hedvig Mollestad Trio: Smells Funny (Rune Grammofon)

The sixth album from guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen's scorching Norwegian instrumental rock trio, having built a strong following through their impressive approach to rock, schooled from both early hard/progressive band but also driving fusion bands, with a penetrating edge in authoritative soloing and intense rhythmic interplay. ... Click to View


Hedvig Mollestad Trio: Smells Funny [VINYL + CD] (Rune Grammofon)

The sixth album from guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen's scorching Norwegian instrumental rock trio, having built a strong following through their impressive approach to rock, schooled from both early hard/progressive band but also driving fusion bands, with a penetrating edge in authoritative soloing and intense rhythmic interplay. ... Click to View


Eugene Chadbourne : Solo Guitar Volume 2-1/3 [VINYL] (Feeding Tube Records)

Recorded in the late 1970's in Canada while improvising rock, jazz, pysch, folk, country & blues guitar madman Doctor Eugene Chadbourne was living there, this is the second of four LPs documenting his work at the time, this album presenting 6 solo pieces of profound playing amidst an unusual experimental nature and a uniquely Chad sense of humor. ... Click to View


The Momes: Spiralling [VINYL LP + 7"] (Mental Experience)

An essential reissue of the only album from this Rock in Opposition supergroup, with two from Henry Cow & The Work--bassist Mick Hobbs and Tim Hodgkinson playing "Hawaiian laptop noisy guitar" and keyboards--and Andy Wake from Unrest Work & Play, in a great set of songs with a literate and post-punk viciousness and unusual approaches to rhythm and sound. ... Click to View


VocColours & Andrei Razin: Ganglia (Creative Sources)

Four voices--Norbert Zajac, Brigitte Kupper, Gala Hummel, Iouri Grankin--sing and speak over the piano work of Russian improviser Andrei Razin in a moody and often startling album that set tone or disorient the listener through constrasting layers of vocalization, as Razin darts among them or sets an atmosphere of lingering tones; often curious, frequently stunning. ... Click to View


Ernesto Rodrigues / Guilherme Rodrigues / Miguel Mira / Carlos Santos: Penedo (Creative Sources)

Recorded on New Years Eve in Sintra in the Penedo region of Portugal, three strings--viola from Ernesto Rodrigues, cello from Guilherme Rodrigues, and a second cello from Miguel Mira--are joined by Carlos Santos on electronics for three extended and richly detailed improvisations, active yet concentratively controlled, using impressive and extended techniques. ... Click to View


Vandermark / Wooley / Courvoisier / Rainey: Noise Of Our Time (Intakt)

After reedist Ken Vandermark's residency at The Stone in 2016, he went into the studio with improvisers Nate Wooley on trumpet, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, and Tom Rainey on drums to record this spectacular album of forward-reaching jazz using stunning technique and wonderful lyrical complexity, as they run through compositions from Wooley, Vandermark and Courvoisier. ... Click to View


Kaja Draksler / Petter Eldh / Christian Lillinger: Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (Intakt)

The rhythm section from the Amok Amor quartet--drummer Christian Lillinger and bassist Petter Eldh--and reforming it as a trio with pianist Kaja Draksler, to create a thrilling, twisting and turning band of quick-witted, avant jazz angles, confusing and thrilling with unexpected shifts in direction on an informed, fun-filled and thoroughly modern album. ... Click to View


Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet: Time Like This (Intakt)

NY Bassist Michael Formanek composes for and leads his Elusion Quartet with saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Ches Smith, a heavyweight set of improvisers who take on Formanek's sophisticated and elusive compositions, using unusual meters and complex yet comprehensible structures, performed with prodigious skill and passionate approaches. ... Click to View


Don Byron / Aruan Ortiz: Random Dances & (A)tonalities (Intakt)

Working together since 2014 in larger ensembles, NY reedist Don Byron and Cuban-born, US pianist Auran Ortiz find a modern yet lyrical heat in their duo collaboration in an album that includes original compositions and intimate renderings of pieces by Duke Ellington, Federico Mompou, Geri Allen, and J.S. Bach, a uniquely diverse and wonderfully embraceable release. ... Click to View


Trio Heinz Herbert (Landolt / Landolt / Hanni): Yes (Intakt)

Blending free jazz, electronic music, glitch, and collective improvisation, the Swiss trio of Dominic Landolt on guitar, effects, Ramon Landolt on synth, samples, piano, Mario Hanni on drums, effects bring a modern and experimental edge to their diverse approaches to free improv, albeit tinged with electronica and rock overtones; a fascinating brew. ... Click to View


Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (feat. Marilyn Crispell / Evan Parker): Parallel Moments Unbroken [2CDS] (FMR)

Scottland's large improvising ensemble of around 20 musicians, merging backgrounds in free improvisation, jazz, classical, folk, pop, experimental musics and performance art, in a 2-CD release of a piece commissioned by the BBC and featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell and saxophist Evan Parker, written using graphic scores, through composition, photographs and artwork. ... Click to View


Morton Feldman (Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt): Atlantis (Hat [now] ART)

A much-needed reissue of this 2000 CD of three orchestral works from late composer Morton Feldman--"String Quartet and Orchestra" (1973), "Oboe and Orchestra" (1976), and "Atlantis" (1959)--demonstrating the evolution of his incredible control in working with tone, mood and instrumental combinations, from his earliest large-scale work to later mature works. ... Click to View


Fritz Hauser : Laboratorio - Solo Percussion (Hat [now] ART)

Swiss drummer & percussionist Fritz Hauser's solo album creates a fictional percussion center that he uses as as springboard to compose solo works for spaces within the [non-existent] environment, depicted in both spacious and active sound work, generating open-air locations with bird sounds and cymbals and areas of quick-paced activity; absolutely impressive. ... Click to View


Karlheinz Stockhausen : Historic First Recordings of the Klavierstucke I-VIII & XI (Hat [now] ART)

Originally conceived as a cycle of 21 solo piano pieces, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen only completed a section of these Klavierstucke works, eventually transforming the series for synthesizers and electronic instruments; Hat Hut now restores the original recordings from the 50s by the pianist Stockhausen dedicated some of these pieces to: David Tudor. ... Click to View


Roland Dahinden : Talking with Charlie: An Imaginary Talk with Charlie Parker (Hat [now] ART)

Bass clarinetist Gareth Davis asked composer Roland Dahinden to write for his quartet, with Koen Kaptijn (trombone), Dario Calderone (double bass) and Peppe Garcia (percussion), the result this "imaginary talk" with Charlie Parker, captured in a score involving graphic as well as more conventional elements, allowing structure and improvisation for the players. ... Click to View


Howard Riley: Live In The USA (NoBusiness)

The brilliant UK pianist Howard Riley is caught live in a US tour in the fall of 1976, recorded at 3 locations in NYC and in Buffalo, NY, each of the well-recorded improvisation a masterwork of extended form as he plays both outside and inside the piano, ranging from warm sections of lyrical quality to fast-paced streams of consciousness in a Cecil Taylor mode; magnificent. ... Click to View


James Lewis Brandon (Lewis / Branch / Stewart / Pirog / Crudup III): An Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch)

New York tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis leads a quintet with Jaimie Branch on trumpet, Luke Stewart on bass, Anthony Pirog on guitar, and Warren Trae Crudup III on drums, in a free jazz album dedicated to Charlie Haden & Ornette Coleman and Surrealism, modern creative music with one foot planted in the 70s and one in the 2010s. ... Click to View


Bloor: Drolleries (Astral Spirits)

Drolleries are small creatures adorning the margins of 13th-15th century illuminated manuscripts; Sam Weinberger is a Brooklyn saxophonist known for groups W-2, and this Bloor project with electric guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary, an assertive and rugged trio playing Weinberg's compositions about the perceptual phenomenon of ever-changing repetition. ... Click to View


Bloor: Drolleries [CASSETTE] (Astral Spirits)

Drolleries are small creatures adorning the margins of 13th-15th century illuminated manuscripts; Sam Weinberger is a Brooklyn saxophonist known for groups W-2 and this Bloor project with electric guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary, an assertive and rugged trio playing Weinberg's compositions about the perceptual phenomenon of ever-changing repetition. ... Click to View


Dunmall / Siegel / Pursglove / Sanders: As One Does (FMR)

Two saxophones take the front line in Paul Dunmall's 2018 studio album, the leader on tenor saxophone with fellow tenor player Julian Siegel, also on bass clarinet, while Mark Sanders drums and Percy Pursglove handles bass and also trumpet, as the band falls into a hard bop mode, weaving lines together over wonderfully turbulent and soulful grooves; outstanding. ... Click to View


Paul Dunmall / Philip Gibbs / James Owston / Jim Bashford: Inner And Outer (FMR)

Paul Dunmall's 2018 studio album in a quartet with James Owston on bass, Jim Bashford on drums, Philip Gibbs on guitar, and Dunmall on tenor saxophone, Gibbs's hollow-body opening up the band sound as Owston and Bashford trade rapid responses or provide solid grooves, the themes of the dialogs focused on space and time through intricate, complex and profound interaction. ... Click to View


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  John Butcher  

Improvising from a Sound Perspective


By Marc Chénard 2003-12-15

John Butcher
[Photo: Kurt Gottschalk]
Music is identifiable, of course, by the styles of the people who play it. But their tools, the instruments they play, are often just as important in defining their styles and the genres. After all, what is more synonymous to rock music than the electric guitar? And what about jazz and the saxophone? Or the violin and classical music?

Throughout history, new instruments have always been devised, some falling by the wayside while others stand the test of time. New techniques are introduced, only to be assimilated into standard playing practices. And bodies of literature (both oral and written) are created that give form to new genres. As a result, technical mastery comes to be defined by a set of rules derived from old and new traditions and the acoustic properties of individual instruments. Wind instruments have been understood to play monophonic lines in a well tempered fashion, and any sound that doesn't fit into those parameters is viewed either as a technical miscue on the player's part or, worse, a sign of lacking skills.

While emphasis is still put on playing in a "legit" way, much has been done to stretch customary boundaries, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of improvised music. Most musics are still readily identified through their instrumentations and specific timbral combinations (particularly scales and chordal sequences), contemporary "free music" is much harder to pin down. It cannot be typified by any one instrument and it does not rely on any characteristic pitch materials. Potentially, one could say that anything goes, but this notion is tempered by a performer's abilities and preferences. Like any other idiom, improvised music has its share of masters, plenty of wanabees and more than a handful of posers, though the problem of knowing who's who isn't always so clear.

Delving into the recordings of a given artist certainly offers some guidance. Records offer a kind of sonic snapshot, limited in time yet very complete in their way of seizing every gesture. As a case in point, the recently issued disc entitled Optic (on Emanen) constitutes a fine introduction to the musical world of British saxophonist John Butcher. From a North American vantage point, the tenor and soprano player has been gaining increased exposure over the last decade with his distinctive approach to improvised music.

Those familiar with his playing have long put to rest superficial comparison with Evan Parker, long upheld because of the fact they happen to play the same two instruments. Next to Parker's Appolonian approach, Butcher could be considered as more Dionysian, less prone to playing in overdrive (which he can do when circumstances push him to do so) than exploring the sonic minutiae of his chosen horns.

The whole range of his playing can be heard in this recording (the title of which refers to the small measuring cup put on top of liquor bottles in bars). Two live performances are spread over the 59-minute side, the first one from a Brussels club in January 2001 and yielding a single 27 minute piece (entitled, appropriately, "Cocktail Bar"), the second taking place in Barcelona a year and a half later and divided into four mid-length tracks. On both occasions, the reedman shares the stage with bassist John Edwards, a younger player who has now achieved a solid foothold in today's rather buoyant British improvising music scene. Their musical relationship is an on-again, off-again one, at times is augmented to a trio with the addition of drummer Fabrizio Spera. In both pieces, the saxophonist deploys a wide range of techniques; for close to half of the first track, the duo engages in a more classic free improvising game plan, quite discursive in its way of tossing out ideas and batting them back and forth. By the second half, both musicians change gears and focus more on exploring specific timbres and sonic nuances with some unexpected extra-musical occurrences, like the ringing of a cell phone in a particularly hushed moment. Asked whether that incident had any bearing on the performance, the saxophonist offered the following observations:

"The audience were on the edge of their seats - but there was certainly extraneous noise around. None of these were distracting, but part of the ingredients. A bit after the 14-minute mark you'll hear a door quietly squeak, which changes the course of the music. We also gave the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" its required space on the mobile."

Indeed, a cell phone ringing to that well known melody has a definite effect on the music and it is from there that a shift occurs. The Barcelona set, for its part, is also very sonic in nature, and the saxophonist focuses more on a range of extended techniques including flutter and slap tonguing, false fingerings, pitchless blowing and various clickings of the keys.

While his whole playing concept is not subserviant to any of the standard practices, it is by no means gratuitous. It lies certainly beyond the capabilities of an amateur noodling around on a horn. Quite to the contrary, for in the liner notes of that disc (penned by British pianist Steve Beresford), Butcher is quoted as saying "half a lifetime's been spent in tiny rooms trying to control these things for when the time comes to play a concert." His comment raises the whole issue of practicing and its relevance for an improvising musician, something which is of definite importance to him.

"I like to practice: you're trying to get all these things out of a piece of wood vibrating in your mouth and it's a process that needs attention. But, in terms of content, it has little to do with performance. I like to feel prepared for what might happen in a concert - but without making any plans about what to play specifically. It's a physical and mental preparation."

Central to his art are his chosen instruments, which he only came to in the '70s after having played piano, "though mostly classical." His interest in improvised music was developing concurrently with one of his earliest and most enduring musical associations, with pianist Chris Burn.

"At first, Chris Burn and I rehearsed privately," Butcher said in an email interview. "He'd work directly on the piano strings, and I began finding more ways to work with color. Then we started [the group] Ensemble back in the days when we had strong feelings about what was and what was not working. We felt that large group improvising was nearly always a disaster. Everything always ended up sounding the same: Things followed very cliched patterns of dynamics and relationships. So we tried to find a different way of interacting in a large group. In fact, 90 percent of that was choosing the right musicians to play with, those who were more interested in listening than soloing. In earlier days, it had about twenty people, but got whittled down to eight. We developed a way of playing that is very interactive but very maneuverable. It could make those changes on a sixpence that small groups can. I like that sense that at any time any one musician can change the structure of the music, not by coming in and playing some really powerful statement, but more by giving a little touch of something that would be just enough to make it go a different way. The structures we conceived for that group have mainly been orchestral, like who plays when. As for myself I like setting up structures for people whose playing I know."

Considering the economic realities of our time, working on a regular basis with a medium or large ensemble is a luxury, especially in Great Britain where support for arts has never been the best, particularly when it involves something on the creative fringes. In spite of it all, Ensemble has managed to play repeatedly, mostly on the continent and once in North America during the 1998 Victoriaville Festival. Like the bulk of musicians working in his field, Butcher works predominantly in small group or solo concert settings, which in itself make up for an interesting question as to his perceptions of playing alone and with others.

"A lot of great solo ideas are the kiss of death to group improvisation," Butcher said. "In a group, you have to step back enough for other people's ideas to make sense, but too much and nothing happens. I'm not interested in placing a static 'me' in different settings; I want each group to stimulate (out of necessity) responses, or ideas that I haven't had before. Of course, this only ever happens up to a point - but having this kind of aim affects the playing."

Also affecting his approach are his ways of using his two instruments. Quite unlike many tenor saxophonists, who pretty well from Coltrane onwards saw the soprano as a mere range extender, Butcher elicits other considerations.

"A tenor note has more information than a soprano note in terms of overtone structure," he said. There are so many color shadings available. So I can 'sculpt' the sounds more, manipulate blocks of sound, move outwards from - or explore inside - a particular sonic area. This might be mimicked on soprano by playing very quickly, so separate sounds appear to be almost simultaneous. The soprano is naturally more agile, but once you recognize traits you have the option of going with or against them. What is 'natural' on an instrument may not be the most musical thing for the situations you play in as an improviser. I also use the tenor to work with fast, short material that has some of the transparency of the soprano, or I might force the soprano into static material where you just adjust nuance. I've said before that it's important for me to try to forget that my instruments are saxophones - in the sense of trying to first hear the musical solutions I want and then find how to implement them."

Beyond his hardware, there is the added consideration of his "software," namely the plastic-coated reeds he has been using for years. And according to Beresford's notes once again, Butcher "throws even more reeds away unplayed than most saxophonists because he needs them to do things most players don't." In essence, his overall instrumental concept is very much informed by his closest musical associates, none of which are reedman but string players, most notably guitarist John Russell and violonist/live electronics player Phil Durrant.

"My early work with Chris then continued with Russell and Durrant," Butcher said. "With bow pressure and attack, for instance, a violinist can produce fantastic timbral variations, and I tried to do this with the saxophone. So it was the act of playing with these string players that led me to a lot of discoveries, rather than just doing 'research' by myself. I also tried to find ways to make sounds overlap, to get away from the on/off nature of a saxophone note. These approaches led to new ways, for us, of building group music - and then it seemed possible to bring back some more conventional elements. I certainly did this in solo playing, and my first solo cd Thirteen Friendly Numbers has plenty of melody on it."

Historically then, these encounters opened new avenues to him, albeit through a circuitous route. Up until the early '80s, music was basically a sideline for him, and in the middle of the previous decade he was part of a group influenced by the figurehead progressive bands of the time (Henry Cow, Soft Machine and some Zappa thrown in for good measure.) From 1977 to 1982, he pursued graduate studies in physics in London where he would obtain his doctorate. But it was not too long after that he chose music as his true vocation. Firmly committed to the cause of improvised music, he would nevertheless develop a style that would owe less and less to a more 'traditional' concept of saxophone playing.



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