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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

3 Friendly Numbers: Recent John Butcher Selections

Way Out Northwest – The White Spot (Relative Pitch, 2012) ****
John Butcher, Guillaume Viltard, Eddie Prévost – All But (Matchless, 2012) ***
John Butcher & Matthew Shipp – At OTO (Fataka, 2012) ***

By Daniel Sorrells

John Butcher is a busy man. In addition to Daylight, the duo with Mark Sanders we previously reviewed (and a new solo album that just came to my attention as I sit down to write this), Mr. Butcher has made three other 2012 appearances: two with sax trios and in a duo with pianist Matthew Shipp.

Butcher is at an interesting point in his career. He now exists in a musical landscape populated by younger players who have come up in an environment where “extended technique” and expanded ideas about timbre and atmosphere are firmly rooted and widely practiced. The sort of sax-deconstruction that Anthony Braxton started with For Alto has become Butcher’s hallmark, but it has also permeated the larger improvisational discourse. Still, Butcher has done more to erase the historical boundaries of the saxophone than any other musician. Over the past few decades, he has shown a devotion to feeling out hard-to-reach aural phenomena and finding creative solutions to his instrument’s limitations.

But Butcher is just not as jarring anymore—he’s no longer the only one to have shrugged off the standard saxophone vernacular. There’s no discrediting his creativity, but there’s a certain familiarity to his approach now, and it’s easier to recognize his strategies and methods. The two opening tracks of At OTO feature Butcher in a solo setting, and are almost unremarkable if you have any past experience with his music. He sounds…well, like himself, and I found myself getting impatient for the duo—the real point of interest. Obviously, what has always mattered most are the musical contexts in which he chooses to work and the way he integrates his sound into the larger whole, but their importance seems especially amplified now. In this day and age, the sheer novel weirdness of his sound itself is no longer enough.

That said, we can take a look at the two trios we’re considering here. They both feature sax, bass, and drums, but different dynamics are clearly at play. Way Out Northwest is an established group, with Butcher being joined by Vancouver-based improvisers Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff. The White Spot has a glancing angle of attack, suggesting big musical shapes without ever being particularly explicit about them. Müller’s formidable arco technique perfectly complements Butcher’s aesthetic, and van der Schyff deftly highlights their shifting textures. The tension in the music arises from a comfortable playfulness, rather than uncertainty or power struggle. These are musicians who are confident in their partnership.

Butcher has always come across as more of a reactive player, a listener who is always twisting and turning his puzzle pieces to see how they best fit in the emerging picture.  He’s less convincing as the fiery sax leader, which may be why All But, the latest in Eddie Prévost’s “Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists” series, seems less assured than The White Spot. Here he seems to be throwing some of his well-tried ideas at a rhythm section that’s not quite sure how to handle him, and though the music is often exciting, it lacks the focus and ambiance of The White Spot. Granted, the blistering, swingin’ sax trio has never featured strongly in Butcher or Prévost’s past, and if All But is an exercise in straining comfort zones, it is certainly in keeping with their adventurous spirit. Butcher is no stranger to beefed-up rhythm sections, but there’s a suggestion of fidelity to some historical notion of the sax trio that maybe makes him uncomfortable, and early in the album when Prévost and bassist Viltard lock into a well-stated groove, Butcher doesn’t seem to bite. He invites some more introspective playing from the others at points in “Part 2,” towards the end unleashing a weird doubling in his sax tone that almost sounds electronic (he hits on a similar effect in “Schoepfiae” on The White Spot, a disorienting, looping feedback that’s like a microphone picking up on its own output over and over). By the time the long “Part 3” gets into the home stretch, the group has developed a workable dynamic, barreling along in free jazz mode.

For all its infectious energy, when listening to All But I actually find myself missing the open space and delicacy found on Butcher’s albums with AMM, particularly Trinity, with Prévost and  pianist John Tilbury. Which brings us to Butcher’s relationship with the piano, and back to At OTO.  Butcher’s very first record was a duo with pianist Chris Burn, though it’s of a much different stripe than Matthew Shipp’s dense, extremely rhythmic style. Much of Butcher’s output with piano focuses on space and resonance, with players who are influenced by Cage and Tilbury. “Fundamental Field” (Shipp’s solo track on At OTO) clearly reaffirms that that’s not Shipp’s bag.  He handles the piano in a direct and simple fashion. He doesn’t manipulate the strings inside, and doesn’t often let notes ring out and decay. It was smart to present solo tracks on At OTO before unveiling the duo. Anticipation becomes the key: how can these two be reconciled?

Because Butcher doesn’t have many extended tones or resonances to interact with, he’s forced to either adopt Shipp’s staccato stream, or to produce his own harmonic haze for Shipp to fire notes through. Both of these approaches actually work quite well, and the long duo “Generative Grammar” is a challenging performance where both players remain allegiant to their preferred modes of improvising while somehow finding the small bit of ground where they overlap. It’s a first meeting that’s untouched by presupposition, the poison pill that got All But off to its shakier start.

In all, these three albums make a good case for Butcher’s stature in today’s improvised scene. Though they play to different strengths and must overcome different sets of problems, in many ways they show the remarkable flexibility and resilience of improvised music, the amazing fact that unique people, instruments, and approaches can always be combined in intriguing, stimulating ways. And though Butcher has a reputation as an intimidating solo performer, these three albums get to the heart of improvisatory practice: human interaction. As Butcher stated in Phil Hopkins’ documentary Amplified Gesture:  “I think if I was only solo playing, I’d have stopped many years ago. There’s got to be the playing with other people that is the drive to continue.”

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© stef


Michael Campbell said...

Very insightful and well written. I don't have enough of Butcher's work to have reached the same conclusions that you have, but you can tell that the young generation is creatively nipping at his heels.

I wish he'd make another record like 'somethingtobesaid'.

Richard said...

The first Way Out Northwest disc is terrific, and I had the privilege of seeing them perform as well. John Butcher really is a master.

I'm having a hard time imagining him with Matthew Shipp. I think I'll have to get it!

AGM said...

Over the last couple of years, Butcher was raised to the pinnacle (justly) of critical estimation, and perhaps even of public enjoyment. But as the present multiple review indicates, what goes up must come down. Butcher's stature is now ready to be pulled down, albeit with silken ropes and the most delicate of critical tools. For critics, it is more fun to bury than to praise. Put his statue in the public square, then pull it down! I come merely to say that Butcher is an honorable man, and creates musical art far above what his cohort can even hope to do. Please pack your pickaxes and hawsers, ropes and hooks. John Butcher is not finished yet, and he is an honorable man.

Dan said...

I think perhaps you're taking my review to be a bit harder on Mr. Butcher than I intended--what I meant to emphasize is the importance of listening to how Butcher uses his idiosyncratic skills in concert with others (or even in inviting acoustic spaces), rather than just gushing about how wild and different his approach sounds on the surface.

And as far as working contexts go, he does not disappoint. Hell, look at the list in the past few years: the Shipp duo mentioned in the review, his work with location-specific acoustics and amplified feedback, his contributions to groups like Polweschel and AMM, and recent, challenging albums with musicians like Rhodri Davies, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Gino Robair.

I agree, he's not finished yet! He remains one of my favorite musicians.