John Butcher is one of my favourite musicians to watch live. I have been fortunate to have seen him play quite a bit over the past few years and it is always a captivating experience, for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Beyond his incredible skill with the sax there is something about his focus, the look of absolute immersion and concentration across his face, and an aura of quiet authority about his body language that all adds to the performance. Whether you like the sound of the sax or not (and its personally taken me years to get to the stage whereby I can answer positively to that question) there is no doubting his control over the instrument and incredible ability to create intricate musical narratives in the moment. Matthew Shipp I am less familiar with. I am aware he is a jazz related pianist, leaning towards the freer end of that particular little spectrum of the music world. If I have heard his music before it didn’t make an impression. If I am honest, I bought this CD, one of the first two releases on the new London based Fataka label because it had Butcher’s name on it, and I was intrigued to hear him play with a jazz pianist. Butcher is one of very few musicians I chance my arm with with this kind of thing.
At Oto then is a set of four pieces recorded (quite beautifully by Sebastian Lexer) at Café Oto in London on Valentine’s Night 2010. The first two are sax solos by Butcher, the third a piano solo from Shipp, and then a final half-hour long duo piece. Its really hard to pin down an exact genre name to pigeonhole the music of the final track under. It is much close to jazz then anything I have heard John Butcher play before, but it isn’t jazz. Melodies are constantly hinted at, but never found. Rhythms keep trying to emerge and yet there isn’t anything here you could consider to be a regular pulse. This is improvised music. Its quite fast, full of firmly placed statements and a constant stream of confident, expressive little musical structures, but its completely improvised. No variations of jazz standards, no soloing. So why does it initially feel so different to much of the other improv I listen to? It took a lot of listening to this CD, twice a day in its entirety in the car to and from work to really grasp the language here and how it all hangs together so well, but while in many ways it speaks in the same language as a great deal of other improvised music- conversation, argument, mimicry, etc, the set of sounds in use, and how they are distributed feels so different to the music that normally inhabits my own little comfort zone. I don’t think it would be correct to say that I set out determined to enjoy At Oto- if I wasn’t to enjoy it then so be it- but I was certainly determined to try and understand it.
The opening two Butcher solos, one for tenor and one for soprano are lovely examples of his expressive, passionate and alive playing. Apart from when he adds feedback into the equation, Butcher sticks to blowing through the sax, either clear notes, some short and stabbed at, some longer and flowing, or a multitude of more textural sounds, from the breathy through to the grittily spluttered. What always makes his solo work sing out so well for me is the way it weaves its own stories, moving from passage to passage in really natural sounding ways, never coming across as a show of technical capabilities or extended techniques. Butcher always sounds completely absorbed in developing a piece of music along its natural course rather than worrying whether he has ticked off each of his potential bag of technical tricks. The two solos here are a joy to follow through their eight or so minutes because they just flow so easily.
If Butcher takes his sax and just blows through it, so Shipp just strikes the piano keys. Nowhere here does any extension of traditional piano technique seem to come into play. The inside of the piano is never touched, and like Butcher Shipp’s solo works because it takes such a basic, unadorned approach to playing the piano and just uses to to create something wildly expressive and thoroughly human. Shipp hits piano keys hard, and often, dancing little figures around, hammering out urgent passages, tipping small deluges of rapid chords and looser notes all over the place. Its exciting, urgent stuff, and its a lot of fun to follow along. If the solos help to underline where each of the musicians is coming from, its the thirty minute duo recording that really grabs me here however. Not really knowing exactly how “jazzy” Shipp normally is, its difficult for me to say which of the two musicians has moved the furthest away from their normal style of playing. Certainly Butcher is faster, more talkative and occasionally more melodically reflective here than we normally hear him, but I sense that At Oto captures the duo inhabiting some kind of middle ground. Its a busy, bustling, and yet never quite frantic sounding recording. The duo sound really comfortable with each other after initial common ground is sought out and as the piece progresses it feels more free flowing and natural, conversational rather than exploratory. What is very notable to me, to my great pleasure, is that it never feels aggressive or overtly masculine, as more busy, faster improvisation often does come across to me. While there is a really strong feeling of confidence and assurance in the playing it never feels like it is forcing itself on its audience, never feels like testosterone is fuelling proceedings. Instead, while it moves quickly and reinvents itself continually on the fly, there is a wonderful feeling of structure and harmony in this music, which when followed closely and picked apart metaphorically provided me with a lot of pleasure indeed. Didn’t think I’d recommend this release, but I certainly do. Nice new label as well, with a strong, individual sense of classy design.