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outside|in - Jazziz, July 2001

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Points, Snags and Windings & Fixations (14)

"It's no good just playing what you know will work," says U.K. saxophonist JOHN BUTCHER.
"Any improviser, after a while, knows what they can do to make the music sound good on the surface. But you've got to go further."

To go where no one has gone before is the conventional goal of the improviser. But the prime directive should be more involved than that, argues Butcher, one of the widely acknowledged leaders of contemporary European creative music, who has appeared on more than three dozen albums in nearly 20 years. "It's a mistake to be always looking for something new" he explains, "at the expense of what you've already done."

Butcher constantly seeks to refine and expand his arsenal of techniques in an effort to broaden the sonic possibilities of his horn and thereby pave the way for innovation. "You can't be satisfied with too much repetition," he says. "It's against the nature of improvisation. Split-second hearing and decision making - and not knowing where the music's heading - are what bring it alive."

One of the great thrills of Points, Snags and Windings, Butcher's new collaboration with drummer Dylan van der Schyff is that the music thrashes best at muted dynamic levels. On a track called "Windings," the subtlety of moment-to-moment shifts in color and attack fuels the intensity. "You can generate a lot of energy at low volumes," says Butcher. "Because it actually takes a lot of physical effort to play quietly on the saxophone, some of that struggle gets into the music."

Throughout the piece, Butcher displays total command of his tenor sax. Every yawp, pop, trill, drone, and tone deliberately tears into the splatter of drums and cymbals. "I'm trying to play inside - rather than alongside or on top of - both the rhythms and timbres of what Dylan's doing, while also trying to keep my own line and train of thought going," he says. This inside-out approach keeps the surprises coming at a furious clip, which compels the listener to tune in to each and every nuance.

From circular breathing to multiphonics, Butcher wields some of the most challenging and evocative ear-bending tactics around. But they're all means to an end, which unfortunately is not always the case in the improv

"I think wind experimentation has got a bad reputation from players who sound like they're just demonstrating novel sounds rather than putting them to use," Butcher says. "I always try to use this kind of material to serve the flow of the music."

He briefly employs circular breathing (an uninterrupted cycle of simultaneous inhalation and exhalation) at the climaxes of "Snags" and "Combat," in response, he says, to van der Schyff "stoking things up on the full kit.... I try to forget that I'm playing sax and just make [technical] decisions in terms of what I think the music needs."

On "Points," the saxophonist mimics heavy guitar feedback with control and clarity. Haunting tones fade in and out on "Spills." Both tracks benefit from Butcher's authoritative layering of multiphonics - a tall order for any horn player. "A problem with wind instruments is that they're basically just on or off in terms of sound," Butcher explains. "There's no sustain. A guitarist can sound one note and play another while the first is fading. And a violin player can use multiple stopping or change the color of notes with bow pressure, bringing out the harmonics in different proportions. I try to create an illusion of this by playing a note and simultaneously fluctuating sounds and overtones over the top."

You can hear this technique in its purest form on Butcher's extraordinary solo disc Fixations (14): Solo Saxophone Improvisations 1997-2000 (Emanem), where he floats luminous sound shapes into the almost delicate, melodic framework of "Almost New." As Butcher swings back and forth "from conventional notes to multiphonics, choosing the multiphonics that make pitch sense with the notes," the melody assumes a gem-like luster.

"Robustica" contains both circular breathing and multiphonics that together create a sustained resonance that calls to mind animal spirits dancing around a desert fire. The piece's guttural vibrations and undulating trance elements recall the ancient Australian didjeridu tradition. "Early Animation," from the Points album, evokes similar world-music allusions to Japanese shakuhachi (an endblown bamboo flute) and Tibetan bass trumpet. Butcher insists the connections are unintentional: "I think, in improvising, you're tapping into an ever-changing sequence of listening and performing memories of all kinds of music that have a very abstract effect on what you do." Both Butcher albums feature stunning bird and insect chirrups, which, one could argue, is a natural consequence of the saxophonist's ambition to tap into "everything a vibrating column of air is capable of."

© Sam Prestiani/Jazziz