As cutting-edge as it gets: extremely demanding, often harsh on the ear, shocking, highly unstable, and even frustrating at times. But it never gets pretentious.
ALL MUSIC - Francois Couture.
Shaped & Chased
Vinyl LP in silk-screened gatefold
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones
THOMAS LEHN: analogue synthesizer
GINO ROBAIR: percussion
A Dorryng - 20:02
B1 Tempren - 6:02
B2 Halouen - 8:25
B3 Swough - 6:53
29 November 2019
Andrew Levine: recordist
John Butcher: mix
Andreas Lupo Lubich: mastering
Yaqin Si: design
Musician photos by Cristina Marx
ni vu ni connu nvnc-lp026
Studio sessionof the trio’s first meeting
PHIL MINTON: voice
GINO ROBAIR: percussion, electronics, piano
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones
Blasphemious Fragments sounds different to me from anything I’ve ever heard, even from these musicians. It suggests the notion of a dream logic, an assemblage that cannot be fixed in place even as one hears it, a brilliant unity achieved with unrelated sounds.
POINT OF DEPARTURE - Stuart Broomer
1 So ladylike the muse unsqueaked a ray of hopk - 2:55
2 Blasphemious Fragments - 4:35
3 Circumstantial - 4:28
4 Maze of false promises- 4:46
5 Sumptuous disturbances (and a Carol) - 10:33
6 A simple man with irregular habits - 3:21
7 Ruttledge's Door - 8:39
8 Small things, hewn from the same block - 3:29
9 Sustaining vain gestures in the air - 3:48
10 Blue night. In the darkness of the dome they wait - 4:06
11 Minced and gilded oaths - 2:36
7 July 2017
Snap Studios, London
Recording engineer: Wes Maebe
Cover image: Cato Lein
Design: Tom Recchion
Rastascan BRD 076
A Geography for Plays
Studio session at RAK
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones and feedback
dieb13: turntables, computer
GINO ROBAIR: energized surfaces, prepared piano, Blippoo Box
“Olecasandrum” sounds like radio signals in fluid, at times with hints of language just beyond comprehension, gradually moving through other zones, including a soprano saxophone that achieves the dense chirping of a flock of birds.
FREE JAZZ BLOG - Stuart Broomer
1 The Lobbard Change Hisstops - 5:24
2 Dart On Discourse - 6:16
3 Olecassandrum - 12:00
4 Tinflappant- 9:53
5 Spoon Wink - 5:25
6 Last Morning of the Dream - 4:03
7 Giant Skull Gasp - 8:22
8 Pearlagraph, The Pearlagraph - 8:36
29 November 2014
RAK Studios, London, UK
Recording Engineer: Wes Maebe
Cover photo: "Daughter of the Circus" by Michael Garlington
Design: Tania Kac/Designarchy
All the music recorded at a BBC Radio 3 session for “Jazz Today"
GINO ROBAIR: energised surfaces & synth
JOHN EDWARDS: bass
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones
What this trio does, is of course totally outside, or even beyond the concept of pattern. Their music emerges, evolves spontaneously, eddies around each other's interventions, flows forward in unexpected directions, and grows as much as it shrinks too at times, with environments changing from stretched tones to moments of short bursts of stuttering voices, intense mini-sounds to amplify silence, birds chattering as if at war, industrial sounds suddenly a welcoming change.
FREE JAZZ BLOG - Stef Gijssels
1 Fires Were Set - 36:06
2 Met By Moonlight - 7:51
3 London Melodies - 4:39
2 May 2012
Phoenix Studios, Pinewood, London, UK
A Somethin’ Else session for BBC Radio 3 "Jazz on 3”.
Producer: Joby Waldman
Recording Engineer: Steve Lowe
Cover Photo: Andy Moor
WEIGHT of WAX - WoW 05
Bottle Breaking Heart Leap
Concert recording in Leeds
GINO ROBAIR: energized surfaces, blipoo box
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones - acoustic and amplified
We seem to have dropped down to micro scale, the sounds of an insect village. Soon after, we're back in the room, with groovy tom rolls and wide open skronky blasts. I like this section in a kind of Cab-Calloway-meets-AMM way, but it's soon dismantled in a cacophony of brassy crashes.
LOUDER THAN WAR - Paul Margree
A Bottle Heart - 16:00
B Breaking Leap - 14:20
3 May 2012
Left Bank, St. Margaret of Antioche, Leeds
Recorded by Simon Reynell
Cover Photo: Tom Djil
Alt Vinyl 060
First and only meeting of this group - recorded at Moat Studios
DEREK BAILEY: guitar
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones
GINO ROBAIR: energised surfaces
The Yorkshire yogi plays electric guitar here, snaking sustained hums over simpatico bustle from the saxophonist John Butcher and the percussionist Gino Robair, and sneaking round the back of the sound to tickle everyone unawares, like a naughty free jazz ghost. Pan walks abroad.
The string-stretching satyr of non-idiomatic improvisation is back. Again.
SUNDAY TIMES - Stewart Lee
1 almosthenics - 5:13
2 teasing needles - 7:34
3 cosmetic halo - 4:01
4 excrescense - 1:37
5 inkling - 5:24
6 frangible - 12:42
7 plugh - 8:10
8 surprise inspection - 3:24
3 March 2000
Moat Studios, London
Recorded by Toby Robinson
WEIGHT of WAX - WoW 04
Radio session for KFJC in California
saxophones (plus motors on 1 & 4)
.. steady and ingenious improvising whose core body mutates from a mysterious murmuring mixed-drone cloud into a palpable wail of near- animalistic howls. Imagine slow-motion cement monkeys pushing in vain against the bars of their cages, steel bars that ring and vibrate in an endless corridor.
THE SOUND PROJECTOR - Ed Pinsent.
1 Knabble - 5:01
2 Fainéant - 8:40
3 Jirble - 8:58
4 Camorra - 5:28
October 15, 2009
KFJC, Los Altos Hills, CA
Recording: Ryan Peterson
Illustration: Dennis Palmer
Rastascan BRD 065
Only meeting of this trio - suggested by Gino Robair
MIYA MASAOKA: 21 string koto & laser koto
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones
GINO ROBAIR: percussion, faux dax, bowed metal, motors
Few musicians working today are able to produce work as coherent and musical as this.
ALL MUSIC GUIDE - Dan Warburton.
1 Lish - 3:21
2 Ouzel - 3:53
3 The Dodge - 4:41
4 A Wing - 2:54
5 Glyph - 7:39
6 Dipper - 3:21
7 Recept - 4:11
8 Cae - 4:45
9 Mosaic - 5:24
10 Covert - 5:41
11 Sloots - 2:55
12 Ariation - 8:07
20 June 2000
Guerrilla Recording, Oakland, California
Recorded by Myles Boisen
New Oakland Burr
Studio session in Oakland, CA
JOHN BUTCHER: saxophones, acoustic and amplified/feedback
GINO ROBAIR: ebow snare, cymbals, motor, toy reed, styrofoam, faux dax
New Oakland Burr is as cutting-edge as it gets: extremely demanding, often harsh on the ear, shocking, highly unstable, and even frustrating at times. But it never gets pretentious.
ALL MUSIC - Francois Couture
1 Throat Rust - 3:52
2 Poundering - 2:44
3 Wrong and Home - 1:57
4 Slug Tag - 2:03
5 Tucking - 1:12
6 Pudsey Surprise - 0:46
7 Cajun Squeal - 1:23
8 Whine Model - 2:26
9 Fid - 4:45
10 Snub - 1:54
11 20p Uncle - 2:56
12 Peal - 3:14
13 Blagovest - 3:14
14 Vug - 3:05
15 One Side Is With A Pea, The Other Pealess - 2:59
16 Louche - 1:30
18 June & 26 November 2001
Guerrilla Recording, Oakland, CA
Engineered by Myles Boisen
Design by Steve Norton
Cover Polaroid photo by Gino Robair
The too short-lived trio with the late Matthew Sperry
tenor or soprano saxophone
percussion, bows and motors, ebow snare, faux dax
double bass and preparations
Butcher and his colleagues seem to hear the notes differently than anyone else on the planet, forging new traditions, and sputtering a fresh dynamic.
ALL MUSIC - Steve Loewy.
1 Ave - 7:50
2 Nervio - 7:09
3 Labio - 6:28
4 Bizaro - 4:17
5 Codo - 2:23
6 Cerebro - 4:06
7 Garganta - 5:00
8 Hand - 1:17
9 Brazo - 5:17
10 Hair - 2:08
11 Dedo - 4:14
12 Pie - 7:04
30 June 1998
Guerrilla Recording, Oakland, CA
Engineered, Mixed, Mastered by Myles Boisen
Photography by Dave Barrett
POINT OF DEPARTURE - Stuart Broomer
taken from the longer Ezz-thetics article:
To say that Blasphemious Fragments (Rastascan) by Phil Minton (voice), John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophone) and Gino Robair (percussion, electronics, piano) is very different is simply to restate my point. It also sounds different to me from anything I’ve ever heard, even from these musicians. Like the other musics discussed here, it suggests the notion of a dream logic, an assemblage that cannot be fixed in place even as one hears it, a brilliant unity achieved with unrelated sounds.
There are 11 tracks here, nine under five minutes, “Rutledge’s door” stretching past eight, the relative epic “Sumptuous disturbances (and a Carol)” stretching past ten. At times there’s a sense of continuum as exchange, as if the three partners are extending one another’s notes: a sudden burst of language; an unidentified, perhaps electronic, drone; a truncated piano flurry; a few saxophone notes. It’s a monody that’s somehow being shared. While there may be a continuous streaming line moving between the three, individual sounds and textures seldom sustain themselves long enough for a listener’s interpretation or assignment of meaning. Sometimes the event threshold is so low – quavering whistles, airy saxophone harmonics (parts of “Rutledge’s door”) – as to suggest that the musicians are polishing air. “Sustaining vain gestures in the air” (the title perhaps a miracle of descriptive accuracy) contains some querulous whistling; air being passed through a saxophone and managing to change pitch without a note being articulated; a semblance of a thinned and extended cry or groan from Minton.
The quality of collective restraint achieved here, a brilliant hesitation, may be sufficiently potent to embarrass a late Beckett play.
FREE JAZZ BLOG- Stuart Broomer
A Geography for Plays
The Open Secret, the trio of Butcher, Gino Robair on energized surfaces, piano and blippoo box (described by its inventor Rob Hordijk as “an audio sound generator that operates according to the principles of chaos theory”) and Dieb 13 on turntables and computer, is built on long-term projects. Butcher and Robair have been a duo for over 20 years, previously expanding to a trio with several musicians, including Derek Bailey and John Edwards, while Dieb 13’s association with Butcher includes the eight-member John Butcher Group that produced somethingtobesaid in 2008.
It’s in the nature of Robair and Dieb 13’s contributions to inevitably blur, but sonic mystery is more than side- effect here, with the two contributing both great invention and refined subtlety. Before Butcher’s high-speed, pecking soprano enters the opening “The Lobbard Change Hisstops” (ambiguity is also a function of the titles), there’s a piping, flute-like sound that only occasionally seems to tip into oscillator. “Dart on Discourse” is an exercise in the beat patterns that arise amidst close frequencies, the result a kind of phantom band in which the trio create other voices. “Olecasandrum” sounds like radio signals in fluid, at times with hints of language just beyond comprehension, gradually moving through other zones, including a soprano saxophone that achieves the dense chirping of a flock of birds. “Last Morning of the Dream” (the connection of the CDs may be inevitable) is witty, bizarre and well nigh indescribable. “Tinflappant” foregrounds Butcher against almost acoustic percussion (an amplified snare?) and a scraping drone, resulting in a spectacular tenor oration that extends to driving, free jazz squall. “Giant Skull Gasp” is a click language, while “Pearlagraph, the Pearlagraph” is at times so subtle as to suggest patterned air with key clicks and feedback.
DUSTED - Bill Meyer
A Geography for Plays
The geography under consideration here is a set of relationships, aesthetic approaches and sound-making implements that are more or less under the control of the people using them. Englishman John Butcher plays soprano and tenor saxophones and microphone feedback. Some know American Gino Robair as a percussionist and others as the former editor of Electronic Musician magazine; he is credited here with energized surfaces, piano and Blippoo Box, a synthesizer with chaos programmed into its circuits. And dieb13 is the stage name of Dieter Kovacic, a Viennese turntablist and electronic musician who has recorded and performed on his own and with efzeg, Burkhard Stangl and Mats Gustafsson. They’re all improvisers shaped by the history of electronic music but not necessarily committed to emulating it by electronic means.
So what’s the Open Secret? Most concretely, it’s the name of the band. Open secrets are things that are supposed to be secret, but everybody knows. You know, like everybody knows who the Residents really are, and everyone knew that Franklin Roosevelt was actually wheelchair bound. More candidly, an open secret is information that is incompletely concealed and wreathed in expectation and mystery. What do you mean, you don’t know? Everybody knows that. Or do they? Wait, you don’t know who the Residents really are? Me neither.
It’s a known fact that Butcher and Robair have been playing together for over 20 years, and that dieb13 joined them both in the John Butcher Group a decade ago. It is also well established that they’ve all made a point of working outside their instruments’ prescribed parameters, but don’t accept the discovery and articulation of out sounds to be a sufficient end. The sounds one makes, strange or otherwise, have meaning in relation to the sounds one has made before and the sounds the other players are making. So maybe the open secret is that even though everyone knows what they guys sound like together, you never really know if what they’re doing will work again since the sound you’re making derives its meaning from a matrix of associations to what you’ve done in the past, how it works with and against what the other musicians or doing, and how they respond to it. There’s no wrong note, just the next note, right?
But to have an open secret, you need to have at least an illusion that you know what’s happening some of the time. This record also has its share of decisive, lucid exchanges. You might not know exactly how Robair is energizing the snare drum on “Tinflappant,” but you’ll recognize its groan. And there’s no mistaking the chunky, serrated sound of Butcher’s tenor curling, halting, and doubling back through the piece’s evolving sonic obstacle course of drums and drones.
But wait a minute, what’s making those drones? Kovacic’s playback implements allow him to feed sounds that might be from other musicians, sessions or records. But he doesn’t just sample and regurgitate. His manipulations range from the delightfully obvious (speed that record up!) to the ultra-slippery, and its at the latter end of the spectrum that his actions combine most productively with those of his fellow players. Feedback, feedback and feedback twist together on “Dart On Discourse.” Or is some of that feedback a bowed cymbal? Was it produced in the moment, or replayed from another record? Does that matter? Why? This music doesn’t just happen, it invites you to think about how you respond to what’s happening and why, and that’s what makes it an especially rewarding addition to its participants’ burgeoning discographies.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ - John Sharpe
In On Air, radical English saxophonist John Butcher combines two favorite pairings into a threesome which explores a fresh take on the traditional sax/bass/drums model. When Californian percussionist Gino Robair first performed with Butcher in a 1997 recording session in Oakland, something clicked and they have toured extensively since, releasing three duo CDs and nine in total including this one. In 2011 they formed The Apophonics by inviting bassist John Edwards, like Butcher an in demand fixture on the London improvising scene, to join them.
Part of the initial attraction must stem from Butcher's aspiration to go beyond saxophone, meshing neatly with Robair's intent to go beyond drums. Indeed the American is routinely credited as playing energized surfaces to reinforce the distinction. At times, the drum becomes the amplifier as Robair moves various motorized objects around the head and shell, seeking unconventional pitches. It means he can create sustained tones without needing to resort to a roll, freeing him up to add other layers of percussion. Whatever isn't attributable to bass or saxophone must be Robair, no matter how unlikely. That squeaky toy? Robair. Bubbling electronics? Likewise.
Over the years, Butcher has systematically studied the possibilities of sound generation on the saxophone. In his hands the horn truly becomes foremost a tube of vibrating air with vents in it, as he fashions an entire vocabulary at the very limits of what is controllable on the instrument, comprising multiphonics, drones, overtones and keypad plosives. Edwards is at his most experimental in this company, exploiting creaks, harmonics, taps and scrapes, as well as being the person most likely to take responsibility for moving the music forward with his swooping bow work or sonorous strum.
At 36-minutes, by far the longest cut on this session originally aired on BBC Radio 3, "Fires Were Set" moves from propulsive interplay into passages of minimalist utterance, at times almost lapsing into silence, before an interlude of extremes contrasting bat-bothering whistles and deep arco soundings. An interchange of percussive textures follows which briefly unfurl into a sort of careening free jazz, only to subside into a more ambient soundscape, before reverting to a final section reminiscent of the opening gambit. A series of gong-like metallic resonances stand central to "Met By Moonlight," circled by saxophone susurrations and bass thumps, while "London Melodies" suggests a city with no ear for a tune, but a hearty appetite for uncompromising timbral exchange.
But of course the real achievement here lies not in the juxtaposition of novel and disparate noises, but that they are assembled, married and executed, via three refined musical sensibilities, into coherent and stimulating expression worthy of repeated listening.
DUSTED - Bill Meyer
Klaus Conrad, the German psychiatrist who documented the symptoms of schizophrenia in the middle of the 20th century, coined the word apophenia to describe the unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by a specific experience of an abnormal consequence. This is not, of course, a phenomenon exclusive to schizophrenics; just ask your grandma about the signs she awaits to tell her that she’s going to hit it big on the boat, or your nephew about the supposedly incontrovertible proof that the Illuminati control hip-hop.
Despite the universality of the phenomenon, it’s a humbling term for an improvising musician to apply to his own music, especially a musician as thoughtful and skilled as John Butcher. Is he suggesting that the relationships between sonic events that people perceive in freely improvised music are simply the outcome of a reflexive operation of our pattern- imposing brains? Or that that is what the musicians perceive in what they’re playing?
Or is he being a bit ironic? Although this is The Apophonics’ debut release, the trio has logged a decade and a half of collaborative work. Butcher, a London-based soprano and tenor saxophonist, has worked in duos and larger configurations with both acoustic bassist John Edwards (also English) and percussionist and electronic musician Gino Robair (who lives in the Bay Area, and who prefers to say that he plays “energized surfaces”) since 1997, and the three of them first shared the same stage as part of a larger group that Butcher convened to performed Somethingtobesaid in 2008.
All three musicians have been committed improvisers since the ’80s; while the name of the group may be a spoof, they aren’t joking. But Butcher likes the word enough to have applied it to an earlier duo record that he made with Robair, so it’s worth keeping it in mind as we consider this one, if only to grasp its ironies.
Because not only does On Air feel quite purposeful, it was made with an explicit purpose in mind. Although Butcher spent some time in jazz bands when he first started playing the horn, part of his establishment of a personal voice involved purging jazz licks and practices from his vocabulary. While he can play quite forcefully and he’s mindful of the focusing effects that a fixed rhythm or boldly stated melody can exert upon a piece of music, to this day you will find no swing in his groove or his tunes, nor any flat-out energy playing. His priorities continue to be the location of something new and compelling in the play between fixed and unfixed aspects of any musical situation. But to his mind, the Apophonics is his fiery jazz group.
But what does that mean? It does not mean that Butcher has abandoned his abrupt reversals of direction, precisely frayed tones, and knack for realizing an astonishingly complete gesture where nothing existed the previous moment. Nor has Robair dumped his command of mechanically manipulated drum skins and metal objects in favor of chord changes and toe-tapping hi-hat licks. But Robair does use a trap kit in this group, not something he usually does. More important, there’s a sense of propulsion about this music, so that even when the cymbal is being sounded by an egg-beater and the tenor sax and bowed bass are forging continuous streams of sound that seem to be moving at different rates, they all feel like they are headed towards the same point. It feels like the players are oriented towards a future destination as well as aware of the immediate moment.
Or is that just apophenia getting the best of me? I don’t think so; while it may take them half an hour to get there, there’s a moment where Butcher lets slip a couple of almost Lester Young-ish notes at the same time that Edwards essays a creeping bass pulse. It’s only there for a moment, but it’s there.
Maybe I’m spending too much time discussing one point, and neglecting the broader merits of this album. How close or far it gets to jazz is not as relevant as how the music touches you, and at that level, this stuff works. Without dictating emotional content, it elicits excitement and imparts a variety of moods. The way one sound seems to challenge or dislodge another from its course is endlessly fascinating. If you need an opportunity to give yourself over to the experience of close listening, this record is waiting for you.
LOUDER THAN WAR - Paul Margree
Bottle Breaking Heart Leap
It starts suddenly, with a frantic sawing sound as if some poor bugger trapped in a coffin and armed only with a nail file is trying to saw their way out. Then it is almost silent, before some metallic rattles and whines disturb the muggy closeness. Suddenly a sequence of fast chirrups burst forth. Have we finally broken free into the biosphere?
This is John Butcher and Gino Robair’s fourth recording as a duo – they also play together in several trios and in the seven-piece John Butcher Group – continually expanding a relationship that started in 1997. It’s a vinyl-only release, documenting a live date in Leeds from 2013. It’s also feisty and vital. The pair has an instinctive, almost telepathic relationship gained from their decade and a half (ish) of playing and improvising together and it shows with a performance that, at different points, enables each player to explore their own delicate sound world or combine to form a surging cacophony that is much more than the sum of its parts.
They’re comfortable enough with each other not to stand on ceremony. There’s none of the gentle faffing around that you get on many free improv sessions, that gradual exploration of space and sound that used to signal mutual respect and listening but then became a set of stock gestures. They’re straight into it with gusto, hurtling to the edge of the universe with a dynamic energy.
At points, there’s so much going on that it’s hard to believe there are just two people playing here. Listen out for the bit about five and a half minutes in on the first side, Bottle Heart, when Butcher’s horn starts quacking and squealing as Robair lets rip with sounds that seem more like howls of a pained mammoth than any human instrument.
Towards the end of that first side – at about 10 minutes – we’re treated to a frenetic outburst of scrunching and metallic and scratching from Robair, which is strafed by Butcher’s scrambled gargles. We seem to have dropped down to micro scale, the sounds of an insect village. Soon after, we’re back in the room, with groovy tom rolls and wide open skronky blasts. I like this section in a kind of Cab-Calloway-meets-AMM, but it’s soon dismantled in a cacophony of brassy crashes.
It’s this mystery and drama that helps make the record so enjoyable. Basically, Bottle Breaking Heart Leap is a sax and percussion album whose defining characteristic is that it sounds utterly unlike a sax and percussion album. Even by the standards of free improvisation, which prides itself in subverting those old, rather staid, jazz configurations of duo, trio and so on, this is an adventurous record, at times resembling a seething cyborg ecosystem made up of many separate yet interdependent parts.
Part of the appeal of this approach is due to Robair’s own aesthetic, often eschewing drums and sticks for a whole variety of what he calls ‘energized surfaces’ – bowing polystyrene plates, using rubber balls to create squishy, fricative sounds, blowing across snare drum heads and so on – a methodology he’s developed painstakingly over years playing with all sorts of experimental and avant-garde musicians. He, like Butcher, has enough in the tank to keep things interesting throughout this 30-minute performance.
This is in particular evidence during the second half of the performance, on what is this record’s second side, Breaking Leap. At about four and half minutes, Robair starts producing a weird rubbery scrape, followed by uneasy squeals which are enough to put your teeth on edge. These sounds return a few minutes later, complemented by a strained wheezing – a sound familiar to anyone who has ever tried to go a for a jog round their local park after a heavy night on the sauce – before things cut to a lovely purring duet, Butcher’s ruffled tone and a low feedback-like whine from Robair.
After this, it’s full tilt towards the end, with a crazily high-pitched ocarina squeal dissolving into a final, frantic fanfare of chirps and parps accompanied by what sounds like a shortwave radio hiss and whine.
Thrillingly out-there stuff. Get it while it’s hot.
FREE JAZZ BLOG - Colin Green
Bottle Breaking Heart Leap
John Butcher dislikes the term “extended technique” – a phrase that appears regularly in our reviews – as it suggests a hierarchy which for him, doesn’t exist. His exploration of the soprano and tenor saxophones has produced a vocabulary in which there is no meaningful distinction between a standard and extended means of producing sounds: they are all as one. His starting point is not notes but sonorities, and not just those of the saxophone but of the space in which he’s performing. He prefers not to know what that acoustic is where possible, and to discover its resonant frequencies and peculiarities while playing. In his solo work, the result is a cycle of vibrations encompassing ear, breath, instrument and acoustic, heard as a constantly renewed feedback of sound.
Things are rather different when he performs with others. According to Butcher, he’ll play with anyone once and see where it goes, but there are about fifty musicians with whom he feels he can play sympathetically. One of these is Gino Robair, with whom he’s performed often as a duo, in trios, and as part of larger ensembles. Robair takes a similarly broad view of percussion. In this performance – recorded in May 2012 at Left Bank, Leeds (a former Church) – in addition to drums, bells and cymbals, sounds are produced by mechanical vibration: the “energised surfaces” Robair is credited with playing, as well as a Blippoo Box. Butcher plays tenor and soprano (acoustic and amplified).
In a number of respects, listening to this album is a matter of what not to do. It’s tempting to identify who’s playing what and to think in terms of a duo. Is that a cymbal overtone, electronic whine or saxophone harmonic, or possibly all three merging into each other, maybe just feedback; was that staccato burst drums or Butcher’s use of plosives? Tempting, but probably fruitless, as it cuts across what’s actually going on. Whereas the distinctive character, phrasing and timbre of a musician often informs his or her contribution, in this performance musical personality is suppressed in favour of the overall aural landscape. It’s the sounds which count, not who’s playing them or how they’re produced.
There’s no denying that for some, this is all decidedly outré. There are no tunes or motifs, not much that could be described as dialogue, and no musical progression in the conventional sense (perhaps, not in any sense). As is often the case with improvisation, we’re required to adjust how we listen and our expectations as to what’s going on. A more profitable way of appreciating this is not to apply familiar musical categories, but to think in terms of contrasting and sympathetic movements and gestures, or different surfaces – rough, translucent, reflective, shattered. This is not to say that the function of the music is to conjure up a succession of mental images – ultimately, it’s about what we hear (and feel) rather than see, even with our mind’s eye – but it provides some understanding of the aesthetic at play, which requires considerable discipline and focussed listening by both musicians and audience.
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD - Stuart Broomer
English saxophonist John Butcher may be among the world's most influential musicians, operating at the cutting-edge of improvisatory practice since the '80s. While his explorations of multiphonics, continuous breathing and electronics have extended the range of sonic and expressive possibilities for free-improvising saxophonists, he's also served as a model for a host of other instrumentalists. Whenever an acoustic musician starts to sound like a bank of oscillators, a tropical forest, a brook or an insect factory, Butcher's influence is likely nearby.
Scrutables, recorded in 2000, is a work of classic British free improvisation, if "classic" can be applied to the kind of sonic mayhem practiced regularly by Butcher, the late guitarist Derek Bailey and percussionist Gino Robair, whose instrument here is described as "energized surfaces". The interactive mechanics of every genuine improvisation are unique, an incalculable intersection of habit, synapse, randomness, extrasensory perception and listening that ranges from microscopically detailed to non- existent. At any moment it might sound as if each musician is creating his own continuum or as if each is responding to the infinite nuances of the others. Either way, the lines and sounds continuously interact in a scattershot effect that has a line moving from guitar to drum to saxophone and back again.
One may hear more here by surrendering the idea of instrumental identity, accepting the music as one might the words assigned to the segments - as previously non-existent ("almosthenics"), rare ("frangible"), or a happy collision ("cosmetic halo" or "teasing needles").
POINT OF DEPARTURE - Bill Shoemaker
By virtue of its instrumentation mirroring that of the archetypal Topography of the Lungs, Scrutables is a viable measure of how the priorities of improvised music had evolved in the intervening 30 years. By 2000, improvised music was no longer a push-back against Americentric free jazz, its sovereignty having long been recognized. The role of energy had been refined; once a constant source of heat, it now provided light in a more tactical manner. And, most importantly, the advents of Bailey and his contemporaries had shaped the aesthetics of a generation of improvisers who were creating new international networks, a process exemplified by the collaborations of the saxophonist and the Bay Area-based percussionist.
By the time of this studio session, Butcher and Robair had established a working trio with the late bassist Matthew Sperry and had worked in ad hoc settings deserving of working band commitment - particularly the trio with electronicist Tim Perkis documented on Robair's compilation, Buddy Systems: selected duos and trios (Meniscus). They were touring the UK as a duo, playing Liverpool the night before their session with Bailey (try finding Liverpool (Bluecoat) Concert, issued by Limited Sedition in an edition of 241 CD-Rs). Therefore, the right chemistry of familiarity, anticipation and fatigue was in play, the latter being an underappreciated precursor.
Throughout the album, the trio balanced otherworldly sounds and athletic movement, "Teasing Needles" being a case in point of how they accelerated iridescent washes of bowed and rubbed surfaces, pedaled harmonics and soprano multiphonics to an endorphin-producing pace. When the velocity of their exchanges is most ferocious, the trio's abilities to produce sounds well outside the normal parameters of their respective instruments make identifying individual sounds treacherously difficult.
Repeatedly, Scrutables leaves one with the sense that the sound of breaking glass has been replaced with the sound of splitting atoms.
PARIS TRANSATLANTIC - Jason Bivins
It's so fantastic to have new Bailey to listen to, not least this fascinating document from 2000 where the sorely missed guitarist met up with saxophonist Butcher and percussionist Robair (here on "energized surfaces") in London. From a period of fascinating transition in Butcher's own instrumental language, the contrast between the three voices is a rich one. Robair is often heard working low toms like timpani, manipulating the drumheads to create crisp pitch alterations. But he's also given to generating a fascinating low analog rumble as Butcher and Bailey string out modes of sustain on several of the pieces here. When Robair is relatively assertive with this sound, the music becomes a floating electronic atmosphere on some alien planet, occasionally (as on "3") with all three players simultaneously creating wow-wow effects like a generator, an oscillator, a forge.
I'm often most compelled by the more contrapuntal passages here, as with the chirping, choppy, squeaking "2," which is amazingly fast, fluid, and conversational, like sonic floriculture. They occasionally veer off into different areas, as with the industrial skronk, quaver and grind on "5" or the closing "8," which is like Arnold Dreyblatt's excited strings plus gongs and cymbals. But the finest tracks by far are those that synthesize all the approaches heard separately elsewhere on the record. The lengthy "6" finds Butcher exploring some of his most histrionic, vocalic effects as Robair goes for the tiniest, high-end bowed styro effects as Bailey chords away no-wave style. They patiently allow the contrast to develop until the piece sounds as if it simply springs apart from internal tension, as Butcher skirls dervish-like on soprano before a spacious, ominous patter begins and the music moves into the sub-layer, proceeding via almost unconscious hints. "7" picks up on from here, but Butcher now combines his burrs and trills with a mighty yawping, and Robair's thudding, occasional punctuations break things down quite interestingly (he's just so deft in changing it up to generate a slur or groan too, aside from conventional percussive gestures)
Overall, this is a killer disc that reminds you of how bracing and inventive top level improvisation can be, with so much information and so many ideas packed into succinct pieces.
JAZZ WORD - Ken Waxman
A hitherto unreleased session now made more audible through modern technology, this CD captures the unmistakable spiky playing of the late British guitarist Derek Bailey in cohesive improvisations alongside London saxophonist John Butcher, with whom he often played at the time, and visiting American percussionist Gino Robair. More crucially it’s a valuable addition to the guitarist’s burgeoning discography. By this point the playing of Bailey (1930-2005) was very much sui generis. Having along with others, mid-wifed the growth of self-defined improvised music in the United Kingdom, his tart and acerbic method of string scraping and finger-picking had retained constant whether playing with older associates or newer musicians world-wide.
As open to multiple pairings and new partners as Bailey, Butcher had by this time (2000), perfected soprano and tenor saxophone multiphonics making his tones as distinctive as the guitarist’s. Rather than being odd man out, Bay area percussionist Robair, whose rhythmic versatility is expressed by labelling his percussion instruments energized surfaces, had already set up a playing relationship with Butcher. But this is his only recorded meeting with Bailey.
Bailey’s insistence on what could be termed total improvisation notwithstanding, the eight tracks don’t suffer from hesitancy on anyone’s part, with the juddering mass often depending as much of the percussionist’s wrenching textures, cymbal scrapes and patterns as the saxophonist’s diaphragm vibrato, tongue stops and circular breathed split tones. No surprise. Robair had already worked with quirky guitarists like Myles Boisen and mercurial saxophonists like Anthony Braxton; Butcher’s associates had included guitarist John Russell and drummer John Stevens; while Bailey had played with nearly every major percussionist and reedist in Free Music including Evan Parker, Peter Boltzmann, Han Bennink and Tony Oxley.
“Frangible” the lengthiest track is probably almost the most characteristic. Built up with circling single notes from Bailey, high-pitched reed squeaks and extensive percussion friction, stressed textures are invested with more urgency as Butcher’s hollowed respiration swells to corkscrewed tongue flutters and chirps alongside Bailey’s rugged slurred fingering and Robair’s roll, pops and paradiddles. Just when the sonic tension seems impenetrable, vibrated reed obbligatos and descending string flanges cut through the impasse and are soon joined by percussive impulses segmented among paper ripping, cymbal smacking and drum surface crackling. Approximations of rhythm guitar strokes, without a standard pulse, as well as cymbal pops and on “Plugh” an understated, reed-blowing ostinato, keep many of sounds on the other tracks together, even approximating harmony at some points.
Still, the true value of this session is to expose the first-class music produced by three improvisers at the top of their respective games. It’s a valuable addition to each man’s catalogue.
THE SOUND PROJECTOR - Ed Pinsent
John Butcher and Gino Robair combine personalities and styles to abrasive effect on Apophenia, the former with his saxophones, sometimes playing them in “motorised” mode, and the latter with his “energised surfaces”. Know what you mean, Gino...my surfaces are already getting energised just by coming into tactile contact with these non-specific, process-based rotary abstractions.
I certainly enjoy the lite-industrial creakery of ‘Knabble’, although you may prefer ‘Fainéant’ which, among its nine minutes of duration, has some moments recognisable as a parping saxophone, hooting freely like a circular-breathing owl, and a snare drum or equivalent item being scraped like an unfortunate ox paying a visit to the tanner which didn’t quite work out in line with the expectations of that bovine. ‘Camorra’ is another superb swipe of ringing and resonating clatterability, where inanimate objects have their hidden voices revealed by the patient caressing of Gino’s sensuous massage, but the real tour de force is ‘Jirble’, nine minutes of steady and ingenious improvising whose core body mutates from a mysterious murmuring mixed-drone cloud into a palpable wail of near- animalistic howls. Imagine slow-motion cement monkeys pushing in vain against the bars of their cages, steel bars that ring and vibrate in an endless corridor. Aye, this deep music can come across as a stern and challenging listen, while the cover art, colourful blobs splurged out from the autopen of Dennis Palmer, reminds me of the sort of humpy-jumpy free playing jazz LP that John Zorn, Fred Frith or Bill Laswell might have released around 1988.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ - John Eyles
The partnership of John Butcher and Gino Robair dates back to 1997, their first joint release appearing soon after. It is some years since they released their last duo recording — New Oakland Burr — but Robair was part of Butcher's seven-piece group, which recorded "somethingtobesaid" at the Huddersfield Festival in 2008. Now comes Apophenia, a radio recording originating from KFJC, California, in October 2009. That source may explain its relative brevity — it just tops twenty-eight minutes. It also explains the high quality of the recording which consistently captures every nuance of each player.
On New Oakland Burr, the pair used extended techniques plus electronics and assorted items to good effect, producing soundscapes that did not obviously originate from saxophone and drums. On Apophenia, they build on that, with Butcher using motors with his saxophones and Robair credited with "energized surfaces." Further investigation has revealed that the "motors" in question were borrowed from Robair and are vibrating rubber-coated items that resemble sex toys. Butcher inserts them into the bell of his saxophone and says that they vibrate the air inside without him having to blow through the reed, and the pitch of the note can be varied by normal fingering of the keys. Robair energizes the surfaces of his drums or other objects using such motors, other electric vibrators, a saxophone mouthpiece or even drum sticks—but rarely by actually striking them.
The album opens with sounds that are not immediately identifiable as sax or drums, some obviously being motorized vibrations, interspersed with other breathier tones that close inspection suggests are from Butcher. Although individual sounds are occasionally attributable to sax or a vibrated surface, altogether it seems best not to question the source of each individual sound but to enjoy the whole sound collage that they create, an effective mix in which contrasting tones and textures overlap and complement one another.
On "Fainéant," there is a shift in the soundscape, with more recognizable sax and drum sounds. The two interact more, engaging in back-and-forth call-and-response, working well together. For the last three minutes of its nearly nine minutes, they very effectively play overlapping tones, with Robair constantly vibrating a drum head and Butcher sustaining notes. "Jirble" opens with darker low frequency tones from each player which evolve slowly and intensify until a resounding silence followed by struck metallic tones from Robair signal a switch to a new direction characterized by the ringing sound of bowed metal. On the closer, "Camorra," Butcher again employs the motors. The roles of percussion and saxophone effectively become interchangeable and the piece could well be mistaken for a percussion duo.
PARIS TRANSATLANTIC - Dan Warburton
Despite the hi-tech concept of the "laser koto" (Miya Masaoka takes the venerable Japanese instrument into the 21st century via MIDI), the traditional 21-string instrument and its tuning system is also happily still in evidence, sounding at times like a viol consort ("A Wing") or a harp ("Glyph"), and providing saxophonist John Butcher with plenty of opportunities to show us that he's still got a fabulous ear for pitch (especially on "Cae"), even though he's perhaps best known these days for pushing his instruments into areas of extended technique.
The range of sonorities these three musicians manage to come up with is extraordinary - Gino Robair's extended kit includes a "faux dax" and various bowed and motorised contraptions, and his quietly shimmering cymbals and Butcher's hazy multiphonics fuse perfectly on "Covert" to create an exquisite textural backdrop for Masaoka's gentle high register plucking to dance in front of. Weird and wonderful sounds for their own sake don't guarantee great improvisation, though - what makes these twelve pieces so convincing is not their diversity of timbre, but rather the satisfying and strong sense of structure that comes from a shared commitment to virtuoso playing and listening.
ALL MUSIC - Francois Couture
NEW OAKLAND BURR
For some, percussion is the art of rhythm. For Gino Robair, it is the art of resonance. Be it bowing a cymbal, setting a snare drum into motion with an E-Bow or a motor, or even playing a "faux dax" (a variation on Hans Reichel's daxophone), Robair's art is here in a class of its own, far removed from the application of hand or stick to skin -- or from the electronic manipulations of Günter Müller and his followers. His playing is a program by itself, but John Butcher's multiphonics and controlled saxophone feedback offer the perfect mates, to the point where on several occasions the listener is left wondering who plays what. It seems that the sax player's lip smacking is organically fused to the percussionist's styrofoam manipulations, and the amplified sax feedback to the ethereal tune of the bowed cymbal.
New Oakland Burr is the duo's second outing and consists of 16 short improvisations (nothing over five minutes). Each piece presents a single highly concentrated idea. The result is a series of dense and consistently attention-grabbing assemblages of squeaks, squeals, grunts, and wheezes. Whoever came up with the track titles is better than most experimental music reviewers at describing the music. Titles like "Throat Rust," "Slug Tag," "Cajun Squeal," and "Whine Model" hit surprisingly close to home (on the other hand, "One side is with a pea, the other pealess" may leave you wondering) -- and certainly more fun than the numbered, untitled tracks that have become the rule in avant-garde music.
New Oakland Burr is as cutting-edge as it gets: extremely demanding, often harsh on the ear, shocking, highly unstable, and even frustrating at times. But it never gets pretentious. It irradiates the kind of profound honesty only possible when all artists involved are confident in what they do, open-minded toward the other participants' input, and gifted with a strong sense of humor, all at once. And there is no doubt that Butcher and Robair are that kind of artists.
OPPROBRIUM - Robert lannapollo
Saxophonist John Butcher never ceases to amaze me. His rigorous exploration of his instrument's capabilities has borne fruit in a style that is unique and instantaneously identifiable. In his earliest recordings he seemed to have been strongly influenced by Evan Parker (with a dash of Lol Coxhill thrown in). But that was obviously a jumping off point. His style takes in the instrument's extreme range but he also incorporates unusual modes of attack, breathing techniques and also seems to take into account the acoustics of the room in which he is playing. This all blends to make some of the most incredible sounds to ever come out of a saxophone.
For 12 Milagritos, Butcher is joined by two like-minded American players, drummer/percussionist Gino Robair and bassist Matthew Sperry. The results are as strong as anything he has done with his usual partners (Chris Burn, Phil Durrant etc).
Robair and Sperry are attuned to the spirit of Butcher's mode of exploration. They both coax unusual sounds out of their instruments: Sperry through arco techniques and preparing his instrument and Robair through (what sounds like) an expanded drum kit (sounds like there are a lot of small percussive instruments) and with subtle scrapes and tweaks. But there is also a true communion amongst these three.
The improvisations are measured but also well-directed. And there are moments when all three merge into one: the end of Ave when Butcher pitches a high-end harmonic, Sperry is bowing at the upper end of his instrument and Robair is scraping harmonics by bowing his cymbal. Also at the end of Codo which starts with Butcher making small pecking sounds but ends with all three musicians making long broad strokes. It's about as "perfectly formed" as four minutes can get in free improvisation. 12 Milagritos is a worthy addition to Butcher's discography and is well worth checking out.
ALL MUSIC - Steve Loewy
Saxophonist John Butcher's style can be recognized in a flash. The split tones, slap tonguing, jabs, and spurts are remarkably idiosyncratic. They are also remarkably good, even if they tend to be predictable. His trio with percussionist Gene Robair and bassist Matthew Sperry is a finely oiled unit, utterly subversive, powerful, and unique. On the singular "Nervio," Butcher's saxophone pounds energetically against an underbelly of scratchy string bass, leading to a held tone building tension, and never really releasing it. This is followed by the sprightly "Labio," with its disjointed clipped phrasing. And so on. This release has the advantage of 12 tracks, ranging in length from one to eight minutes, each of which is sufficiently different to keep the listener's interest. This is noise/improvisation at its best, logically developed and touching a plethora of moods and textures.
The bassist shows spectacular form, with studied intervallic leaps, and horn-like runs, though nothing on the recording is closely related to any sort of common improvisatory strategy. Here is music that soars in its own way, oblivious to the world, yet forging new perspectives that sound a cry for freedom. Butcher and his colleagues seem to hear the notes differently than anyone else on the planet, forging new traditions, and sputtering a fresh dynamic.