And so to writing about music again… Today I have listened several times over to Scrutables, a new release on John Butcher’s Weight of Wax label, that maybe is as close to being a re-release without actually being one as is possible, having been recorded in 2000 and originally lined up to appear a decade ago on Butcher’s previous label Acta. The disc contains eight studio tracks made by the trio of Butcher, (saxophones) Derek Bailey (guitar) and Gino Robair (energised surfaces). This recording brought together two duos Butcher had been part of for a number of years, but may had been the first meeting of Bailey and Robair. The music here then is a very nicely recorded example of some fine, medium paced, relatively busy acoustic improvisation by three masters of the practice. Its a pleasure to listen and follow the threads of conversation running through it.
I have listened to quite a few Derek Bailey albums over the last year or so, but they have tended to be either his solo discs that Incus have re-released recently, or duo recordings, often with percussionists. Taking the time to listen to Bailey here as one third of a trio then serves as a reminder of how thoughtful a listener he was. While on his solo discs he tended towards a flowing, mostly uninterrupted stream of shapes and colours, and in duo his playing always felt like one half of a mutually agreeable wrestling match, here he leaves much more space in his playing, seemingly taking in what the others around him do more and responding, of course in his unmistakeable personal style, but responding thoughtfully and allowing room for Butcher and Robair to set the pace. Butcher is in particularly talkative mood on these recordings, working through his typically wide range, but leaning often towards shorter, stabbing exchanges that match Bailey nicely, with Robair, who rubs and scrapes and vibrates the various surfaces of a drum kit colouring in the spaces in between. If much of the album is a strong example of rough and tumble free improv, there are a few places herein that actually shine out as being something quite different, showcasing towards the versatility of Butcher and Robair but also showing a side of Bailey’s playing not often heard. Cosmetic Halo, the third piece here sees Robair conjure glowing clouds from bowed metal that immediately gives the music a very different feel. Into this Butcher feeds the softest of tones and small fluttering events, and Bailey moves into similar territory, allowing long hazy notes to seep from his electric guitar, always threading them just where needed, not just matching the music’s form for the sake of style alone.Â The fourth track, the intriguingly titledÂ Excrescence opens with a fast paced interchange of scritchy, scratchy interplay but somehow dissolves beautifully after a minute or so into some warm clouds of tone from all three, ending after less than two minutes just at the point it should end, resolving itself perfectly. While these moments are in the minority here, there are smaller examples, little gaps for air in most of the tracks on the album. While for the most part the music is a mass of sounds ricocheting off of one another, the slower pieces provide the album with a great sense of structure, breaking up the flow and highlighting the sheer musicality of these three musicians. Scrutables is then, a real pleasure to listen to, to wallow in, to feel right in the centre of… If you like these musicians, and this area of music, buying this one is a no brainer.