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Saturday, November 2, 2013

John Butcher - Winter Gardens (Kukuruku Recordings, 2013) ****

By Paolo Casertano

John Butcher has a strange effect on me. I couldn’t explain why, but I perceive, more than with other sax players, his physicality. Sometimes it hurts me, I feel the breath blowing out from his lungs, scratching his trachea and drilling his throat. He’s not a man playing a saxophone. It’s a saxophone playing a man.

There is also something heroic in the way he keeps sometimes on repeating again and again the same air blast generating an act of sound (because saying note or musical phrasing would be a reductive description). He may change embouchure, intensity, length and frequency between one emission and the following, but he persists on hitting obsessively the same concept, the same structure, hammering or caressing it, annihilating his meaning until what it’s left to the listener is naked, unique and unrepeatable.

His eleventh solo release (if I am right according to his discography) opens with “Sporangia (High)” in  a suffocated stream of hoarse waves overlapping each other, slowly creating the scenario for a second voice on high register to emerge, this same path disentangling then in a crescendo of recursive classical echoed trills. The atmosphere changes immediately in “Sea Cone” where Butcher, at his best, builds a rhythmic tribal structure through sudden dynamic movements of a low repeated pattern and the resonances of his acoustic gestures.

The flip side is the reflective (also in the compositional structure) “Sporangia (Low)” which sees the musician rumbling with his glottis until the single elements are melted in some new waves of sound, and then introducing passages on a low, intense register. I know this may sound like a strange description, but the part I like most is that at a certain point Butcher seems to literally bite the reed as if it would be one of this rubber toy for babies containing a whistle. And, you know what, it sounds exactly like someone biting a rubber toy with a whistle inside (maybe that is was he is doing). Whatever it is, I think that’s electrifying. “Sea Fret” closes this work in a jubilation of slap tonguing and some acute notes which a hummingbird would be proud of.

Unfortunately, this is a short album. I don’t care if this sounds snobbish, but this music is made to be heard on vinyl.

You can find a copy at


Colin Green said...

I think you’re right Paolo: Butcher explores the areas between man and instrument, and instrument and acoustic, so that one hears a continuum from his body to the space in which he’s playing. Like all of Butcher’s solo work, this is an LP worth having.

As a matter of interest, why is the music made to be heard on vinyl, and why would it be snobbish to say so?

Paolo said...

Colin, I’ve been listening to this album both on vinyl and on hi-res so called “lossless” files, on the same stereo. And yet I believe that something this music loses. There must be for sure a part of subliminal enthrallment in it, but I’m still persuaded that vinyl with all its imperfections and impurities gives the right amount of “blood and flesh” to it. The same act of listening to a vinyl LP is more bodily, more laborious in some way. I see it as a question of respect towards the artist musical choice and consequently as a listener “commitment” to plenty get its shades.
About the second part of your question, I’m also aware that a 300 copies only vinyl release can be perceived as snobbish by many listeners, and taking then into the right account that me, you, maybe Martin and probably another fist of folks here around are the only owners of the physical item (and this is not an extra credit, I’m only a slave), and again that as a matter of fact we’ve written our nice review on our as much nice blog, I wouldn’t blame anyone willing to consider my affirmation as at least a bit elitist. And probably I can live with it.

I will be glad if we keep alive on these pages this debate, started – for sure not for the first time – also in the comments of the former post.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't sound snobbish, it sounds dumb. One of the things I like about this site is that it's about the music, not the stereo system. You're comment just has no purpose.It's just a snarky slap in the face to the non vinyl crowd, or at best a high five to your fellow vinyl buddies. It may sound as if I'm offended, I'm not, I just would really appreciate steering clear of the inane audiophile discussions. I go to other sites for that.

Colin Green said...

I think Paolo has a perfectly valid point. What he is saying is that the performance benefits from analogue warmth. Sadly, I’m a hi-fi buff myself, and with certain recordings I prefer the LP. Not always, however. For example: Anthony Braxton’s recent “Mirror Mirror Echo House” would I’m sure, struggle on vinyl. A digital recording with plenty of separation is what it requires. There are other recordings I have where I much prefer the CD.

Given Paolo’s explanation, his preference can’t be regarded as snobbish. It’s not based on the limited number of pressings, or the mere fact it’s on LP, but that he considers vinyl to be the most sympathetic medium for the recording. Fair enough. Nor do I think it can be regarded as dumb, or a slap in the face for those who don’t own a turntable.

This site clearly is about the music rather than stereo systems, and rightly so. In my view that doesn’t mean that a reviewer shouldn’t be able to mention recording quality, or even preferred formats where it has a musical point. That’s a long way from qualifying as an inane audiophile discussion

On a technical point: lossless files are not necessarily the same as hi-res files. The former denote a mode of compression, whereas the latter are files above CD resolution. A FLAC file is lossless, but not necessarily hi-res. In my experience, most of such files from Bandcamp and similar sources are CD quality only, not hi-res. I have to say, I wasn’t aware that this album was available as a download.

Paolo said...

Right Anon! Always keep your manias separated, as my gran grandpa was used to say. That's so wise of you!
I'm not offended either, I'm just fascinated...

Martin Schray said...

We had this discussion before and I guess we will have it again some day. You can't separate the medium from the music but of course we focus on music. But we also do our best to inform the readers about the quality of the media the music is released on and I guess that most of the readers appreciate it. As to me I don't think that Paolo is snobbish (even if he suggested it) and like Colin I think that he has a valid point. The review has no intention to start an audiophile discussion, it is simply about the music - and IMHO it is a very good review which has aroused my interest in buying it. Finally, the review and Paolo's remark do definitely not sound "dumb". This site clearly is about music, it's not about elitism and it's clearly not about insulting people.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for the dumb comment. This is a pretty respectful crowd and that was inappropriate. I also liked the review overall and I'm sure Paolo is a great guy. I have no problem with vinyl, but I still the think Paolo's vinyl comment adds nothing. People who love vinyl already know, those who don't,don't care. I listen through single ended class a amplification without negative feedback and I find it solves a lot of the problems associated with digital playback, maybe you should give this a try. But I guess this just confuses things further. Love this blog and will probably give the Butcher LP a try.

Paolo said...

Hi Anon,
thank you for the compliment. I will try to adopt your setting and see what happen.
That's exactly what I meant, this is a blog about free jazz, sometimes about music in general and how we listen to it, someothers it's a place where I like to tell a story about my relationship with music (that of course must be intended just as something valid for me, with no intention to suggest anything to anyone)... but echanging opinions is always appreciated.