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Joe Morris / Rob Oxoby: Dancing With Penguins (Bug Incision Records)

Improvising guitarist/bassist, writer, and educator Joe Morris spent four months as visiting scholar at the University of Calgary, during which time he recorded with University of Calgary professor and double bassist Rob Oxoby, this freely improvised album with Morris on electric guitar, a great confluence of strings in 6 concentrated and adept dialogs. ... Click to View


Joe Morris / Chris Dadge / Jonathon Wilcke: Rural Optimism (Bug Incision Records)

During guitarist Joe Morris' stay as a visiting scholar at University of Calgary, Morris joined the Chris Dadge / Jonathon Wilkes duo, first on stage and then in the studio to record this first-rate album of collective improvisation, merging idiosyncratic percussive activity, abstract and lyrical sax declarations, and profound and pointillistic guitar work. ... Click to View


Bent Spoon Trio: Nine Year Itch (Bug Incision Records)

Formed in 2002 as a quartet, then in 2005 as the trio of Chris Dadge (percussion, trumpet, bass), David Laing (bass & trombone), and Scott Munro (sax, melodica, &c), then as the duo of Dadge & Monro in 2008; 2016 found the trio together again in Calgary for the closing of the Emmedia performance space, their entire set of unique collective improv captured for this CD. ... Click to View


Chris Dadge / Jonathon Wilcke: Three Live Pieces (Bug Incision Records)

With a 15 year history of collaboration, Bug Incision label leader Chris Dadge joins with fellow Calgary free improviser Jonathon Wilcke on saxophone for an album of live performances in their home city, two performances from Parlour and one at Local 510, showing strong rapport in their duo of uniquely unconventional percussion and lyrically quirky sax. ... Click to View


Obnox (Lamont Thomas): Templo del Sonido [RED VINYL] (Astral Spirits)

Ohio garage and free rock mainstay Lamont Thomas, AKA Obnox, was approached by Astral Spirits to make a free jazz record, the unexpected results sounding more like a rock record in a wild ride of noise, funk, electro, voice, and percussion, a savage album with the protest and pointed sensibilities of the early 60s; pressed on translucent red vinyl. ... Click to View


Signe Dahlgreen : Kunki Snuk [CASSETTE + DOWNLOAD] (Astral Spirits)

Solo improvisations on the heavy side from Swedish saxophonist Signe Lykkebo Dahlgreen (Yes Deer, Per-Ake Holmander, Anna Hogberg), using prodigious technique and a tenacious style she pushes the sax into odd harmonic territory balancing complex technical playing with raw energy and angst, a balance that keeps her listeners on the edge of their seats. ... Click to View


Paolo Sanna: Fluorite (Creative Sources)

Dedicating his album to Paul Burwell and Z'ev, Spanish percussionist Paolo Sanna demonstrates his many years of research in sound, silence, noise, experimentation, musical research and deconstruction through stand percussive devices and found objects, giving his playing a distinctive and personal palette which he plays with superb technique and timing. ... Click to View


Ernesto Rodrigues / Guilherme Rodrigues / Bruno Parrinha / Luis Lopes / Vasco Trilla: { Lithos } (Creative Sources)

Recording in the studio in Lisbon, Portugal, the free improvising lowercase/subtle momentum quintet of Ernesto Rodrigues on viola, Guilherme Rodrigues on cello, Bruno Parrinha on bass clarinet, Luis Lopes on electric guitar, and Vasco Trilla on percussion demonstrate intense control and remarkable concentration through the five parts of "{ Lithos }". ... Click to View


PCRV: Mobility [CASSETTE] (Banned Production)

Thick fuzzy sound with subliminal interventions and a subsumed squiggly lead line makes the first side of this cassette release from American sound artist Matt Taggart, AKA PCRV, balanced by a ringing work piece of ambient harmonics that creates a beautiful hypnotic tone texture that shifts slowly with illusional transitions. ... Click to View


Pregnant Spore: I Am in Love with My Own Sins [CASSETTE] (Banned Production)

Pregnant Sport is Justin Marc Lloyd, Chicago-based experimental noise artist who performs under a variety of monikers, here as Pregnant Spore in a rapid-paced album of rich and ruptured sound, unusual rhythmic sources, reverse phonetics, quickly changing pace and direction while maintaining an odd sense of cohesion; fascinating and perplexing. ... Click to View


Satoko Fujii / Joe Fonda: Mizu (Long Song Records)

With commanding instrumental skills and a growing history of collaboration, bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Satoko Fujii are heard again in two live concerts as part of their 2017 European tour, two duos from Belgium and one in Germany, the CD taking its title from the Japanese word for "water" as the two converse in powerfully emotional and technically breathtaking ways. ... Click to View


Steve Coleman and Five Elements: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. I (The Embedded Sets) [2 CDs] (Pi Recordings)

With his earliest and most current performance history tied to the enduring Manhattan jazz club The Village Vanguard, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman records his Five Elements in a 2017 live show with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Miles Okazaki on guitar, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums for a fiery, exuberant and masterful concert of modern jazz. ... Click to View


Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse: Morphogenesis (Pi Recordings)

Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse brings together 9 musicians in a chamber jazz setting without a drum set--Jonathan Finlays(trumpet), Jen Shyu (vocals), Matt Mitchell (piano), Mara Grand (tenor sax), Rane Moore (clarinet), Kristin Lee (violin), Greg Chudzik (bass), and Neeraj Mehta (percussion)--performing 9 of Coleman's sophisticated original compositions. ... Click to View


Barker Trio: Avert Your I [CASSETTE + DOWNLOAD] (Astral Spirits)

After releasing drummer Andrew Barker's duo with Daniel Carter, "Polyhedron", Astral Spirits takes on Barker's trio album with sidemen Michael Foster on tenor & soprano sax, plus electronics, and Tim Dahl on bass, Barker also adding synth & electronics, for an album of ruggedly intense, propulsive playing with a probing inquisitiveness. ... Click to View


Charles Barabe : De la Fragilite [CASSETTE + DOWNLOAD] (Astral Spirits)

Victoriaville, Quebec electronic composer Charles Barbare creates abstract electroacoustic works, here in an impressive 6-movement work that covers a wide ground from minimalistic rhythmic sections to time-stretched voices and electronics to musique mystery, his inquisitive approach allowing his scores to unfold in decipherable, dramatic and coherent ways. ... Click to View


Hvizdalek / Nergaard / Tavil / Garner: Juxtaposition (Nakama Records)

Sonic sources of a wide variety of timbre, rhythm and tone, mixed with voice, feedback, even bird sounds, make up the strata of this intriguing album from Oslo Improvisers Agnes Hvizdalek (voice), Magnus Skavhaug Nergaard (electric bass, electronics, field recordings), Utku Tavil (snare drum, no input mixer, sampler), and Natali Abrahamsen Garner (voice, electronics). ... Click to View


Hvizdalek / Nergaard / Tavil / Garner: Juxtaposition [CASSETTE] (Nakama Records)

Sonic sources of a wide variety of timbre, rhythm and tone, mixed with voice, feedback, even bird sounds, make up the strata of this intriguing album from Oslo Improvisers Agnes Hvizdalek (voice), Magnus Skavhaug Nergaard (electric bass, electronics, field recordings), Utku Tavil (snare drum, no input mixer, sampler), and Natali Abrahamsen Garner (voice, electronics). ... Click to View


Goh Kwang Lee / Christian Meaas Svendsen: Gibberish, Balderdash and Drivel (Nakama Records)

Three "nonsensical" musical conversations between Malaysian experimental musician and Herbal International label founder Goh Lee Kwang, and Norwegian bass player and Nakama label leader Christian Meeas Svendsen; a first encounter between two different mindsets, nationalities and generations, packaged with a pencil to let you draw your own cover. ... Click to View


Goh Kwang Lee / Christian Meaas Svendsen: Gibberish, Balderdash and Drivel [VINYL] (Nakama Records)

Three "nonsensical" musical conversations between Malaysian experimental musician and Herbal International label founder Goh Lee Kwang, and Norwegian bass player and Nakama label leader Christian Meeas Svendsen; a first encounter between two different mindsets, nationalities and generations, packaged with a pencil to let you draw your own cover. ... Click to View


Hal Hutchinson: Factory Metal Sound [CASSETTE] (Banned Production)

British noise artist Hal Hutchinson (Der Bunker Records) in a record of apparent field recordings of metallic factory sounds, a machinist's daydream of rotating and subdued lathe sounds, each side of the cassette with a distinct timbre and recording ambiance as the mysterious sounds provide a cantankerously complex set of audio environments. ... Click to View


Mako Sica / Hamid Drake: Ronda [VINYL 2 LPs] (Feeding Tube Records)

The long-running Chicago free-rock trio Mako Sica currently comprised of Przemyslaw Drazek (trumpet & guitar), Brent Fuscaldo (guitar) and Chaetan Newell (drums & piano) are joined by free improvising legend Hamid Drake on drum kit, tablas and frame drum for a beautiful and rich album of genre merging, spiritually warm, primarily instrumental music, inclusive and persuasive. ... Click to View


Mako Sica / Hamid Drake: Ronda [CASSETTE + DOWNLOAD] (Astral Spirits)

The long-running Chicago free-rock trio Mako Sica currently comprised of Przemyslaw Drazek (trumpet & guitar), Brent Fuscaldo (guitar) and Chaetan Newell (drums & piano) are joined by free improvising legend Hamid Drake on drum kit, tablas and frame drum for a beautiful and rich album of genre merging, spiritually warm, primarily instrumental music, inclusive and persuasive. ... Click to View


Musaeum Clausum: Musaeum Clausum (Umlaut Records)

Musaeum Clausum is a French-German trio that features Louis Laurain on cornet (Die Hochstapler, Umlaut Big band, ONCEIM), Hannes Lingens on drums (Obliq, Konzert Minimal) and Sebastien Beliah on bass.(Un Poco Loco, Ensemble Hodos, Umlaut Big Band), in an album of patiently developing improvisation giving each player freedom and flexibility within a composed framework. ... Click to View


Sebastien Beliah : Nocturnes (Umlaut Records)

Sebastien Beliah is a Paris-based double bass player, a member of Umlaut Big Band, The Coquettes, Un poco loco, &c., here in a solo album of bass noir, dark and resonant tones evoked through strong bowing, finding harmonics between the strings and from the instrument itself, creating beautiful passages in a mirage of engulfing deep timbre. ... Click to View


Charles Noyes K. / Owen Maercks w/ Henry Kaiser / Greg Goodman: Free Mammals [VINYL] (Feeding Tube Records)

A great example of open-minded West Coast free improvisation around the late 70s from the quartet of Charles K. Noyes on percussion & saxophone, Owen Maercks on guitar, Henry Kaiser on guitar, and Greg Goodman on piano & percussion, side A from a live concert in Berkeley recorded by guitarist Henry Kaiser, side B from sutdio sessions in San Francisco. ... Click to View


Toshimaru Nakamura : Re-Verbed (No-Input Mixing Board 9) (Room40)

Tokyo-based electronics artist Toshimaru Nakamura's 9th album of No-Input Mixing Board music, elucidating sound from the mixing board without any audio sources, showing the amazing evolution of his approach as he turns this "empty" "instrument" into an amazing source of rhythmic and assertive sound that's both surprising and wonderfully musical. ... Click to View


Paul Flaherty / Chris Corsano: The Hated Music [VINYL 2 LPs] (Feeding Tube Records)

Gary Panter's artwork is updated and the format is vinyl this time for this welcome reissue of the 2000 Ecstatic Yod CD from the now long-running duo of tenor & alto saxophonist Paul Flaherty and drummer Chris Corsano, a superb free jazz album of great invention and seriously deep playing, from hard attacks to introspective musing, truly impressive! ... Click to View


Sidsel Endresen / Jan Bang: Hum (Confront)

Using sampler, dictaphone, and voice, the duo of Sidsel Endresen and Jan Bang improvise and interact to create unorthodox hybrids of fractured electronics and articulated word, as edgy and engaging as it is unusual, captured live at Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, in Oslo, Norway in 2016, a great followup to Bang's "And Poppies From Kandahar" Samadhi album. ... Click to View


Don Cherry: Home Boy, Sister Out (WeWantSounds)

Trumpeter Don Cherry recorded this funk album in France in 1985 with a set of multi-ethnic Paris players including Elli Medeiros and produced by Ramuntcho Matta, the songs crossing funk with jazzy vamps, rock roots and modern approaches, reissued with new liner notes and 5 bonus tracks including the cult 1983 single "Kick" featuring legendary author Brion Gysin. ... Click to View


Don Cherry: Home Boy, Sister Out [VINYL 2 LPs] (WeWantSounds)

Trumpeter Don Cherry recorded this funk album in France in 1985 with a set of multi-ethnic Paris players including Elli Medeiros and produced by Ramuntcho Matta, the songs crossing funk with jazzy vamps, rock roots and modern approaches, reissued with new liner notes and 5 bonus tracks including the cult 1983 single "Kick" featuring legendary author Brion Gysin. ... 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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