All About Jazz-New York, 2010

In November 2009 English saxophonist John Butcher touched down in New York to perform his penny wands and native string at Performa 09 with 8 intonarumori, the noise instruments fabricated by Italian futurist Luigi Russolo in 1913. As the musicians cranked Russolo's exotic boxes, Butcher added a host of sounds, from long tones sustained by circular breathing to complex multiphonics and ghostly whispers. Butcher was connecting almost a century of radical music and showing another facet of his wide-ranging work. He's doing more of the same this month, performing in pieces by Christian Marclay at the Whitney and free improvisations in Brooklyn.

Born in Brighton in 1954, Butcher moved to London in the 1970s, regularly hearing the first generation of British free-improvisers like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. Drawn to the sciences, he earned a PhD in physics, something that hints at the potential depths (and complexities) of his music and methodology. There's still something of the experimental scientist in Butcher's work. He can stand almost motionless, using his saxophone to create dense layers of continuous sound, highs and lows interrupting and overlaying one another amid washes of granular sound, resembling at times a bank of oscillators.

Asked about the relationship between science and music, though, Butcher is apt to focus on the contrast: "Often their differences are more noticeable to me. At the concept level in physics, if what you theorize doesn't agree with nature, it's of little value. In music you can create your own reality. But there's an empirical similarity, in that most of what one learns about improvisation is discovered through actually doing it, exploring the physical materials (instruments, other people's input, acoustics) much like an experimental physicist.

"In terms of solitary preparation, 25 years ago I did a lot of work in categorizing the overtone structure of most of the possible fingerings of the tenor and soprano, and looked at ways of connecting the most useful multiple sounds to more conventional technique. I think this must somehow be connected to the scientist's desire to try to discover what's usually hidden and to find what's possible in places you're unfamiliar with."

In that exploration of saxophone mechanics, Butcher evidently drew inspiration from the innovations of his countryman Parker and the lineage of John Coltrane, but the results have been strikingly original. Today you can hear his influence in trumpeters Nate Wooley and Peter Evans as well as younger saxophonists like Matt Bauder and Stéphane Rives.

Though he's associated with "extended techniques," Butcher rejects the term as antithetical to music as an organic whole. In a forthcoming essay he writes, "One wouldn't describe Jimi Hendrix's use of feedback, Son House's percussive attack or bottleneck, or Albert Ayler's overblowing as an extended technique. They are all an intrinsic, inseparable part of the music and a completely necessary part of the artist's sound." It's the integrity of the music that's clearly of the first importance, and it's the only way one could create work of the expressive depth that Butcher can achieve, whether playing solo, in a group or interacting with architecture.

Butcher began playing regularly with guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant in 1984, eventually adding trombonist Radu Malfatti and percussionist Paul Lovens to become News from the Shed, further developing the close listening style pioneered by drummer John Stevens and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the 1960s. In 1993, Butcher became a member of the last incarnation of the SME, a strikingly quiet trio that also included acoustic guitarist Roger Smith.

Since then Butcher has worked in a startling range of musical associations, including the minimalist Austrian group Polwechsel, the wind trio Contest of Pleasures, and Thermal with guitarist Andy Moor and synthesist Thomas Lehn. Percussionists Gino Robair and Gerry Hemingway and harpist Rhodri Davies are regular duet partners, but there have also been fruitful encounters with figures as unalike as guitarist Fred Frith and pianist Matthew Shipp. Recently he's worked with AMM, another founding band of British free improvisation that has been active since the 1960s.

Many of those closest to Butcher - Burn, bassist John Edwards, Robair and Lehn - are members of his recent project, the eight-member John Butcher Group, formed in 2008 to perform his somethingtobesaid. It's a work of tremendous variety and depth, fusing ancient telephone messages, wine glasses, pre-recorded drones and varied tonal settings for sustained improvisations. For Butcher, "somethingtobesaid is music that could only happen with these players as it relies on their personal musical materials, judgements and experience - developed and honed in some very different cultures, continents and times."

"In terms of pre-formulating a piece it's easy to spot the danger, even temptation, of simply rummaging around in the sonic treasure-chest they provide. As it happens, I have more sympathy in control at the personal rather than the global level. In keeping with this, the piece has been constructed through a mix of knowing and not yet knowing the musicians' sounds and methods, some hopeful psychology in predicting responses, engaging with some personal concerns, contemplating the power of the specific and the value of ideas that can be notated - and having a well founded trust in the power of improvisation, in certain hands."

In addition to saxophone sonics, Butcher explores resonances further afield. In June 2006 he toured Scotland's sparsely populated north to record in environments ranging from a mausoleum to an oil tank to a stretch of land so windy that Butcher played his soprano by holding it aloft and fingering it as the wind blew the instrument. A few months later he was in Oberhausen, Germany, exploring the interior resonances of the town 's gazometer, a 350-foot high reclaimed gas cylinder. This April, he was in Texas playing with fellow saxophonist Joe McPhee in artist Jim Magee's The Hill on the outskirts of El Paso.

What keeps improvised music fresh for Butcher after thirty years' involvement? "It's always the players - not so much the fact that it's improvised. There's a pool of a few dozen people I want to play with - each time we meet, they've changed a bit and so have I. What I learn in playing a duo with Rhodri Davies will change (a little) how I play with Gerry Hemingway a month later. ... Then there's the personal influence of things in life completely outside of music - maybe other art, but more how perspectives evolve as one's experiences accrue, positively and negatively."

With the passage of time, "There is an undoubted weakening involved when 'styles' become taught and learnt and re-produced. Everything gets flattened out. But, always a few people will come through that and find what's more meaningfully their own. There's no universal vocabulary (fortunately), and, unsurprisingly, we do see generational and geographical differences producing distinct approaches. These have fuzzy boundaries, where a lot of the interest lies."

Passionately committed to the moment of creation - "I do know that it's often only when I'm improvising music that I feel like I'm really existing in the present" - John Butcher clearly believes in keeping things interesting.

© Stuart Broomer/All About Jazz-New York, July 2010