CD Reviews, Vinyl Reviews

Two from John Butcher

March 24, 2013

Bell Trove Spools
CD. Northern Spy Records

Winter Gardens
Vinyl. Kukuruku Recordings

Music can obviously be many things to many people. The music that saxophonist John Butcher makes across these two solo albums will, to many, sound confusing. To others it will be a challenge, an annoyance, an abomination, or a real leap forward in what music can sound like. For me personally, while I often find music that could easily be fitted under any of those headings I would not describe the music on these two albums as any of these things. I first saw John Butcher play almost two decades ago now as part of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s performance at the third LMC Festival, a performance that I barely managed to sit through at the time as my experience and understanding of this music was in its infancy, but having on and off been a regular attendee of countless concerts involving Butcher since, his music now feels incredibly familiar to me. Now, this isn’t to say that it all sounds the same, or that there have been few progressions in his work over those two decades, as there are worlds of differences to be heard, and considerable advances in Butcher’s technique and approach, but his music has developed into something of a language, a way of working that he uses to tell stories, to propose puzzles, to ask questions. Once you understand the language, John Butcher’s music no longer feels a challenge. You can approach a concert, or a recording knowing roughly what to expect, but while the language stays the same, the stories, the phrasing, the conundrums that the music then poses are a joy to wallow in. As a sculptor may limit his raw materials, so Butcher sticks to two saxophones, occasionally augmenting them with natural feedback, and has developed an understanding of and confidence in his chosen instrument that lets him shape whatever forms he chooses. From there, its down to us as listeners to make of it what we will.

I write all of the above to set the context for how I find these two recent solo albums. It would be easy, but thoroughly uninteresting for me to just say that these are both fine examples of John Butcher solos, and if you appreciate the man’s work then buying them is a no-brainer. Yet trying to describe the music here is equally unsatisfying. We end up with all the familiar adjectives- fluttery, breathy, growling, piercing etc without ever really coming to terms with that language, that soulful depth that is ingrained into the music that makes it instantly recogniseable as John Butcher’s. Winter Gardens contains four tracks. Two were recorded in London late in 2011 at a concert I attended in a church, and two a couple of months earlier in Wisconsin, USA. The two London tracks are raw acoustic Butcher in fine, flowing form, once with his soprano and once on tenor. These two tracks feel the most vibrant and immediate of everything across these two albums. Its hard to say why, but the music feels like it is lit up in bright colours, with every edge sharpened, every twisting flurry of notes pushing its way out of the speakers, and most crucially, the music forming itself into detailed narratives that drag you along whether you like it or not. the two American recordings are both fine pieces, this time amplified, and in the second one a rare recorded example of John’s use of feedback to create a work that feels almost gamelanesque in tone as puffing, popping bursts combine with wheezing, rotating patterns to create a multi-layered piece that contrasts nicely with everything else here.

Bell Trove Spools contains ten short pieces all recorded in 2011 in the USA, the first five at a Houston concert in April, the second five captured between the two recordings from the Winter Gardens set as a recording session in Brooklyn. The live pieces are captured nicely in a resonant hall, and here we experience Butcher in full on, forceful mode, trying to make full use of the echo in the room, shifting dynamics often, turning to and from the microphones, using the venue and the situation to its full potential as he moves through varying pieces that stray from the semi-melodic Perfume Screech to the cello-like wailings of Unspeakable Damage. These pieces are all acoustic tenor works bar the one, the brief but thoroughly beautiful Willow Shiver, where heaving feedback is added, which combined with the natural resonance of the room gives the music a menacing undercurrent that should have any jazz purists shaking their heads. The studio pieces feel more like controlled studies, but again an unexpected room resonance is used to the full. The initial four tracks, titled First Dart through to Fourth Dart make use of short, stabbing sounds, sometimes spaced wide apart. Second Dart reminds me, peculiarly, of Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille┬ástring quartet as brief squelchy streaks sit in broken up little clusters surrounded by pregnant silences. The closing Egg seems to tie together all of the Dart pieces into a neatly balanced little study made up of the different short sounds explored in the preceding tracks.

This is, for me then, glorious music to wallow in on a Sunday evening. No, John Butcher isn’t pushing at many genre boundaries right now, and yes I would know his music from the first intakes of breath given how familiar it feels. But while others rightly go about their way confounding and reinventing Butcher has slowly developed his personal language into something not only uniquely his own, but something he can put to use to convey any number of emotions, instigate any number of inquiries. Do we need two more solo albums of Butcher’s music? I wouldn’t be bored if we had a dozen.

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