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Thursday, January 3, 2013

John Butcher - Bell Trove Spools (Northern Spy, 2012) ***½

By Martin Schray

Improvisation and sound have always been very close, for almost every instrument it has been attractive to discover the possibilities of unusual spaces. Evan Parker recorded his classic Six of One (Incus, 1980) at St. Judes on the Hill church in London, for example, and lately Wally Shoup and Paul Kikuchi recorded their album Aurora Distillations in an abandoned train tunnel in Washington State. Also, Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus used the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum to create one of this year’s best albums: The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers. But hardly anybody has been as interested in sound spaces as John Butcher. He does not only play his saxophones, he also plays the location listening to the echoes and the reverberations the acoustic space provides. Each new space is a new “player” and therefore Butcher is always looking for new challenges. According to Northern Spy he played in an “empty water cistern in Scotland, in a 400-foot tall gas pipe in Germany or a lava-carved cavern in Japan”.

But Butcher is not only interested in his surroundings. His extended techniques are exquisite and he uses split tones and false notes, sound layers, hums, buzzes, noises, circular breathing, amplified sounds and overdubbing. On top of that, he is also capable of playing incredibly beautiful and lyrical.

Bell Trove Spools was recorded at two locations in the US, the first five pieces at Richmond Hall, a Houston art gallery housing a permanent Dan Flavin light installation, the other five tracks at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, a music and arts venue which was an old can factory before. 

And actually you can hear immediately how important the locations are for the quality of the music. Richmond Hall, where Butcher used the tenor, oozes the charm of a warehouse, the tones are often dull, the instrument sounds clangy and distorted.  Even his tenor’s fog-horn sounds seem to go up in smoke. Butcher does his best but he cannot always make up this deficit. The second part of the album is the better one. The high ceilings of the marble room in Brooklyn respond to Butcher’s soprano in various ways and he seems to find more interesting improvisations as well. At the beginning he plays his sax like a trumpet, the tones have room to breathe, it seems as if there were two instruments. Very often there are allusions to classical music, when passages that sound like the Queen of the Night aria in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” or like Wagner’s “Rheingold” overture or like a Bach fugue come up. But there is a natural aspect as well: If you didn’t know better you could swear that in “Second Dart” a bird got lost in the room and was then enjoying itself twittering happily as if he was listening to the music it creates.

Bell Trove Spools is a nice approach to improvisation, even if the first location should have been chosen in a different way.

You can listen to parts of the album here:

You can buy the album from


Anonymous said...

The low score reviews for John Butcher's recent releases,beg for an alternative opinion,and there are many,and not just for this release:

The quality of Butcher's output this year equals anyone's,even,Jack Wright's(although quantity is down,quality and great concerts are not;a 'living legend'-easily on par with,P.Broetzmann).

g said...

My own take on the 5 star scale has always been:

0.5 - offensively awful
1.0 - awful
1.5 - bad
2.0 - below average
2.5 - average
3.0 - above average
3.5 - good
4.0 - great
4.5 - excellent
5.0 - transcendet/canon/all-time great

3.5 doesnt seem like a low score, but that's just me

joesh said...

Thanks 'g' for the reminder.

Anon ... The star ratings discussion goes on for ever. If we give too many high stars there's the same discussion but from the other end. Thus we decided to be more sparing with the stars and so with our scoring system.

As 'g' noted 3 stars and above is very decent.

Martin Schray said...

Thank you, Joe, Thank you, "g".
The thing with the star scale has indeed been a longstanding crux. I also think that Bell Trove Spools is a good album and if it had a constant quality like as in the last four tracks I would have rated it with ****1/2 stars. I really like John Butcher, he is a great artist and especially this year he has released a lot of fantastic music.

Anonymous said...

The ratings are here,and give me an insight into your credibility;'an educated opinion is worth more than an uneducated opinion'.This is an OK blog,and I've just gone through the reviews for the first time in a couple of years,and the last time for a couple of years,because,for the most part, I don't find them helpful,insightful,or informed.

Happy New Year

Paolo Casertano said...

That's a pity Anon. Reading one more review, even if not informed, insightful or helpful for you can't be anything but good.

Stef said...

Hi Anon, welcome back in 2015!