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At the Hill of James Magee - Morning Star

Joe McPhee / John Butcher

wire review

Imagine if you can a more surprising recording location than that chosen by virtuoso saxophonists John Butcher and Joe McPhee back in April 2010. Unaccompanied, and under the huge skies of the rock-strewn and treeless Chihuahuan desert in Texas, they played standing and walking on the cruciform shale walkways and inside the giant steel doors of the four buildings full of sculptural works by New York artist and architect James Magee, ex-denizen of a New York City junkyard.
The result is the astonishing album At the Hill of James Magee, recorded in situ, and finally released following intensive work on the original recording. It's unique, seemingly expressing not only Magee's vision but the land, soundscapes and history of the US and the world beyond.
"Playing music and working with sound away from the usual environment in which performance is 'consumed' is liberating," Butcher tells me. "People tune into the here-and-now and uniqueness of the situation. It wasn't only land and sky, as Magee's four buildings are very significant.
"They've been slowly making their mark on the desert, even though the desert makes the human presence rather insignificant." The stark surroundings, both outside and inside Magee's structures, impacted on the way the duo played. "Inside, the large metal frames and sculptures made from a mix of hard industrial and delicate organic materials created an intimacy which affected our playing," Butcher explains. "On the track Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No we sensed that intimacy, while on Paradise Overcast you can hear me making a piece with the echoes of the buildings and on the rest it is the vast outside as we blow into the land and sky."
"Staying in the frontier town of El Paso before the recording, both musicians were strongly affected by what they had seen there. "On the other side of the river border is Ciudad Juarez, which has had some of the most horrendous murders and drug crimes over the last 20 years," Butcher recalls. Seeing the streams of Mexicans crossing the high-security bridge to buy necessities in the US had a powerful influence before they played. Perhaps that is partly the cause of the sense of anguish that their horns express on the recording. From his first recording, Underground Railroad in 1968, McPhee's notes have radiated with the truth of what US "civilisation" has done to its earth, rock, cities and people all through his defiant musical life. Brighton-born Butcher's empathetic sounds make common cause with his American partner. "I'm always amazed," he says, "how it's possible to play for the first time and with no talk about the proposed music with a musician from a quite different culture and history. "It demonstrates something about the power of this approach to improvisation, about being open but also staying yourself."
Butcher has recorded in some unlikely locations before, including "some unusual places in the Orkneys" but never one as compelling as "on that special day on the hill of James Magee." As a record, it is one not easily forgotten. A transatlantic duet by two masters of their horns, it rakes the American rock and sky with uncanny musical truth.

© Chris Searle / Morning Star