Bill Meyer's liner notes for Concentric

Paal Nilssen-Love - John Butcher

The players who made this recording were born almost exactly twenty years apart, quite a long time in the accelerated evolutionary pace of improvised music. Similar spans separated Louis Armstrong and King Oliver from Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Diz and Bird from Albert and Don Ayler, and Bells from Polwechsel. The different eras in which these two musicians came of age have inevitably shaped their musical personalities.

John Butcher had to define himself in part through refusal. A saxophonist, he dealt with jazz as he learned his instrument. But in order for him to find a way for the saxophone to articulate the timbral leaps and structural challenges of the early composed electronic music that, amongst other things, inspired him, as well as to make his own place in a vibrant English free improv scene that contained such intimidating precedents as Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, he sought to purge his playing of idiomatic influences. After years of woodshedding, and particularly an intense joint excursion with pianist Chris Burn, Butcher moved beyond the boundaries of genre and established technique and developed his own language out of what was left.

Although it might seem surprising given his excellent duo recordings with such differently gifted percussionists as Gerry Hemingway, Dylan van der Schyff, Gino Robair, and Eddie Prévost, John rarely played with drummers in the early part of his career. "Escaping from jazz in the early 80s," he explains, "meant avoiding jazz-type lineups. I wanted to explore the 'colour' of saxophone sound, not be a soloist, not play lines. So I worked with violin (Phil Durrant), guitar (John Russell), and Chris Burn's ENSEMBLE etc. The only drummer at the time was Paul Lovens in News From The Shed, but you know how he played in that...." That percussion proscription ended after Butcher joined the final version of John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1992. "By then I felt able to use my approach in a more rhythmic situation without falling back on old ways and habits, but also Stevens left so much musical space within his activity that the push and pull was as agile as a string group."

Paal Nilssen-Love's development has involved more walking towards than walking away. His father Terry, who now focuses his creativity on painting, was both a jazz drummer and the proprietor of jazz clubs in Redhill, England and Stavanger, Norway. "I was exposed to jazz and improvised music from an early age. I begun playing in the school band when I was nine, a rock group when I was 13, and more and more jazz from when I was 15, 16 and up. I also used to sit in with the elder musicians who had regular gigs at the club." Amongst his early jazz associations was Frode Gjerstad, who included the teenager in the Circulasione Totale Orchestra and various other combos. Paal's evolving engagements with non-idiomatic improvisation, rock, free noise, and the fringes of dub and funk via his associations with Mats Gustafsson, Raoul Björkenheim, Lasse Marhaug, and Ken Vandermark betray no anxiety about historical baggage or musical encumbrance, only a hunger for new musical stimulation. At the same time, his recent work with the swinging ensembles School Days and Atomic proves that ambivalence has never crept into his relationship with the music of his youth; indeed, he thrives on the contrast. "I have always dealt with groups playing music with time and melodies, and at the same time groups or ad hoc meetings where the contrary is the case. But I think that if you play really free music, you should feel free to include all elements. When Evan Parker and Derek Bailey chose to exclude time, melody and harmony it was for political reasons, then."

So how do these two men who generally move in different circles and have dissimilar relationships to musical tradition find a way to work together now? The answer is in the record's title -- by finding centers that hold their sometimes intersecting, other times complimentarily co-existing musical fields in place. I'll name just one, although an astute observer can identify multiple axes of attitude, technique, and attention around which these four tracks revolve. That center's name is John Stevens. Butcher's relationship with the late drummer, cornetist, and organizer -- a man who could lay fair claim to having first opened the door into a certain restrained, highly interactive sector of the many-roomed house of free improvisation -- has already been noted. Nilssen-Love's link, ironically, goes back even farther. Stevens had been friends with Terry Nilssen-Love since the latter's days in England, and often booked into his clubs. He also played with Gjerstad in the group Detail and other projects; the saxophonist once wrote of their involvement as "one long workshop lasting almost 13 years."* When Stevens was in Stavenger it was only natural that Paal took lessons from him. Stevens sternly demanded of both audiences and musicians the utmost seriousness with respect to a music that was, and still is, damned to a range of disrespect from outright opprobrium to corrosive disregard. He asked that everyone involve listen and hear and respond, and that they take it beyond a thoughtless tit-for-tat dialogue. This duo duplicates one of the SME's line-ups, the early 70s sax-and-drums version with Trevor Watts, but doesn't sound much like it. Instead it adheres to Stevens aesthetic of considered, open, and highly human interaction, and honors his gravity of intent with the commitment of the playing.

© Bill Meyer, Berwyn IL, June 2006.

* (source - liner notes to Hello, Goodbye by Frode Gjerstad, John Stevens, Derek Bailey; Emanem 4065)