Streams of Expression review of
Butcher / Sanders at FOTC

Freedom of the City 2010

John Butcher - Mark Sanders

I made my way back to the Conway Hall for the second day...
Butcher was up first, paired with Mark Sanders. Anytime he plays, something absorbing is bound to happen, such is his control of his instrument and sense of the minute detail of the unfolding soundscape, and this performance did not disappoint. Given the history of saxophone/drum duos, it was refreshing that the music here never felt like free jazz, achieving its gripping pull on the listener through clarity of ideas rather than speed of execution or the laying down of virtuosic mountains of notes. Butcher opened on tenor, multiphonics imbuing the saxophone with an almost glowing sound, the upper reaches tempered by the lower notes' burnished undertones. At first he played what was not quite a full melody, but a definite motif nonetheless, carefully structuring things by twice alternating this motif with another figure, before proceeding: a kind of opening invocation, a preliminary statement, a preparation.

The performance then unfolded at a pace which one could almost describe as unhurried; but that turn of phrase suggests a kind of lazy relaxation very far from the close-listening, focussed intensity displayed by both musicians. Sanders used bells, bowls, mallets, displaying an often non-linear sense of rhythm that, given the context, was entirely appropriate, working in tandem with Butcher's smearing, hovering, overlapping frequencies and textures.
After a ten-minute tenor section containing a sustained, crescendoing trill which played with space in a similar manner to Peter Evans the day before, Butcher switched to soprano, an instrument on which he adopted a number of sonic approaches: tongued, finger-slapped, almost percussive sounds that turned the notes away from their harmonic implications, while leaving tonal possibilities within reach; supple strings of notes, which might even have had some connection to conventional soprano sax jazz-isms, but which were peppered with harmonics; and, most strikingly, whistle-frequency sounds that called out with the force of wind, full of shrill urgency and near-physical presence.

The changeable weather outside came peeping through the partially-covered glass roof, the sun's appearances and disappearances behind clouds seeming at times to mirror Butchers' and Sanders' alternations, entrances, and exits - as if in some subliminal or more overtly conscious way environmental conditions outside the building had influenced the performance (or maybe, thinking mystically, the improvisations influenced the weather!). That doesn't mean that the performance was reduced to the merely imitative or illustrative modes of Romantic classical music, for improvisation's concentration is on sound as sound, and on human interaction with instruments and with other humans playing them (rather than the translation into music of a lone composers' inner feelings on seeing a landscape).

Yet Butcher and Sanders did create a kind of tone poem, if we take that phrase up on its poetic implications, rather than as musical terminology: obliquely echoing, returning, departing, unfolding within a structure that seemed almost to create itself, participating in its own making rather than forcing more mobile elements into a restrictive, pre-existent mould. Their dialogue was respectful but not 'polite' : 'solos', individual statements, were not look-at-me virtuoso displays arising from a false structural obligation, but appropriate opportunities for particular sonorities to be explored, new directions to emerge.
One of the best performances of the festival.

© David Grundy / Streams of Expression