the test / jazz review / august 2004

john butcher cover - jazz review The Test is a "blindfold" listening session, appearing each month in the UK magazine JAZZ REVIEW.

This one, with 9 pieces of music, was set by the editor Richard Cook - who transcribed the discussion, and wrote:

Like any part of the past, recent history is always open to a different interpretation. Many of us remember the new British jazz of the 80s as an exciting awakening. Quite a few others regard it as a neglecting of older spirits in favour of trendy youngsters.
In this month's "Test", John Butcher suggests a third view: of a fundamental retrenchment of what amounted to neo-conservative values, in the face of the surprising strides which the free-music scene had been making in the same period. To be fair to John, he goes on to say that he's softened that view now. But it's interesting to think back in the light of that remark. At the time, I always felt that a new jazz listener should be ready to embrace the likes of Anthony Braxton's music as well as Art Blakey's. I found out soon enough how unwilling most were to be that open-eared.
I like the remark a Chinese historian made not long ago, when asked about what he felt was the historical impact of the French Revolution: "It's too soon to tell".

Sidney Bechet | Spontaneous Music Ensemble | 29th Street Saxophone Quartet

John Zorn | Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane | Peter Brötzmann

Tony Oxley | Evan Parker & Walter Prati | Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron

Indian Summer, from Centenary Celebration (1940)
Sidney Bechet (ss); Sonny White (p); Charlie Howard (g); Wilson Meyers (b); Kenny Clarke (d).

Well, Mr Bechet. Is it "Sweet Lorraine"? It's not one I've ever played, which is the way I usually know the titles.

What do you think about this kind of playing?

When it's done by him, I love it. I'm a big Bechet fan, particularly of the soprano. In jazz I've always been drawn to the more melodic players, although that's not the sort of direction I've gone off in myself. Bechet, Lester Young.... the thing with Bechet is that you haven't got much to compare him with. He was a soloist on an unusual instrument, and he took the lead trumpet role but turned it into a much more mellifluous vehicle. There's a kind of ecstasy present in the sound of it. Even when he's playing in a quite melancholy way, it always sounds really positive and life-affirming. He was meant to have been a very tough character, I know.

Does the backing on the record bother you, as a modern listener?

No, it's not a problem at all. I suppose it's the necessary thing there, because the focus is the melody, and the single line that he's playing. It was a time where you really laid down a canvas to sit that on top of. It wasn't about interacting with every little nuance of the passing soloist.

Did you try to play like Bechet when you started?

No. I probably didn't hear Bechet for many years after I took up the soprano. But it's the sort of thing I sometimes play along with. Playing along with things, I found, is how you find out about other people's music, The thing about playing like Bechet is, you feel a bit stupid, because for most people it's pretty unnatural to play with that much vibrato and copy that kind of sound. I really feel like it's a technical exercise if I try to play like that.
There's a real robustness on the instrument. That, and a bit like trumpet players when they go for high notes, you get that little bit of extra tension. Bechet hits them marvellously, but there's just that bit of tension. With a lot of more recent soprano players, superficially they're much more agile, but the whole thing is less centred and a lot thinner. I don't know what kind of instrument he was playing. It's probably something that nobody could play in tune now, because instrument manufacturing has improved so much.

Was that the kind of music which made you want to play the saxophone?

No, my listening went off in all directions. I think I got into playing the saxophone through going out to hear London musicians in the 70s, which was before I'd really heard any American jazz. So I was going out and hearing Mike Osborne and John Surman, Pete King. Then somebody played me some Charlie Parker and I thought - oh, it sounds like Pete King. Then you go off in all directions, forwards and backwards in time, though going back came a few years later. The enthusiasm for playing saxophone was just from going to these London gigs. I'd also hear all the South African players that were here then, like Johnny Dyani and Dudu Pukwana.

It's curious, isn't it, that the 70s are often held up as a very thin time for jazz.
But there was lots to go and hear in London then.

I don't know if it was the age I was that made it seem fresh to me, and that always happens when you first encounter something. I suppose there's always been periods when European jazz has had its strengths, but that was a time when you felt it was breaking out into something of its own. The British jazz of the 50s was great, but it was still rooted in American models, and those models had begun to disintegrate by the 70s. That mix of South African and free players who were in London - at places like The Peanuts Club, with Harry Miller and Louis (Moholo). It felt like a music that was beginning, rather than coming to an end.
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Face To Face 2, from Face to Face (1973)
Trevor Watts (ss); John Stevens (d).

(Straight away) Evan Parker and John Stevens. No, Trevor Watts and John. I'm more familiar with John playing with Evan. It sounds a bit like Trevor influenced by Evan, but you can tell it's not Evan. Was this called SME then?

That's who it's credited to, even though there were only two of them on this occasion.

It sounds like a bigger kit than John used with most of the SME things. Maybe it's how it's recorded, but it sounds closer to his jazz kit. I was in the last couple of years of SME, which was with Roger Smith, John and me. That was '92 to '94. I knew John's playing a lot from things like his sessions at The Plough, which was more his free-jazz thing, pretty high energy and pretty much drawn from free jazz, and I wasn't really that familiar with the SME side of things. So when he asked me to play with them, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, because I was expecting more of a free jazz thing. But as soon as we started playing, I realised how ignorant I was, and it was fine. I realised how much I'd been influenced by the SME kind of thing. But second-hand - not really hearing the original that much, but hearing its effect on the London scene, Then I went back and got hold of some SME records and discovered a history I didn't know much about.

Playing with him was always a very serious experience. Even if the circumstances surrounding the gig weren't ideal, he sort of set up an atmosphere. The audiences paid attention, or else they got in trouble. And that kind of atmosphere affects how you play. Sometimes you get too much into a situation of low expectations and it can get rather casual, but for the actual music John was always extremely focused, and very aware that it was a unique event and if you didn't pay attention to it now, it would be gone and you'd never have that opportunity again, and it was the same for the musicians and the audience.

The way the music went was always pretty unpredictable, within the SME way of paying attention to small details and small sounds and allowing some kind of quality to emerge - who takes the lead. He could really drive, with a strong rhythmic propulsion, without forcing you to do anything. You could twist his propulsion with what you were doing at the time.

Did you discuss music much with John?

No, I wish I had. He'd been playing with Roger Smith for about 15 years at that point, and they had quite a complex relationship, and I was a little bit the outsider in that. I regret considerably not taking John up on a couple of invitations to go round and hang out with him - because the timing was never right. So I got to know him through the playing. His strength of purpose and direction, and the things that go with it. Being stubborn, and to some people awkward - but that's the other side of the coin of trying to do what you want to do in a hostile environment.
You need more people like him. I'm intrigued by the dynamic of those early days, of who was picking ideas off of whom. John was a very polemical character - if he had an idea about something, he'd spend three hours talking to you about it, whether you wanted to listen to it or not, and he was probably even more like that in his youth. The story remains to be told.
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New Moon, from Live (1988)
Bobby Watson (as); Ed Jackson (as); Rich Rothenberg (ts); Jim Hartog (bs).
RED 123223-2

Sounds like late Johnny Hodges.

The alto player's a Hodges kind of guy, but it's not him.

It's got a late, studio sound to it - less slurring than Hodges. I'll have to pass on this, unless you give me a nationality.

It's a group record, basically.

Saxophone quartets I don't follow much. If it's one of those, I might guess the World Saxophone Quartet. It's not ROVA, I've never heard them do anything like this.

It's the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, with Bobby Watson taking the lead.

Just a name to me. Did they come up in the 80s? That was a period when I virtually stopped listening to anything new coming from jazz - in fact, I didn't want to listen to any jazz, because of the sort of places I was going.... to try and find my own contribution, for what that's worth. A lot of the impulse was negative - I didn't want to do this, or that, and I became quite anti-jazz for a few years, and there's definitely a bit of a black hole with all these people who came up, like Michael Brecker - it just sort of passed me by.

So what do you think when you hear this now?

Well, I've relaxed in my arrogance (laughter). What I don't much like in saxophone quartets is when they're hammering away trying to be other instruments - they feel someone has to play a walking bass line and someone has to do slap-tonguing to make it sound like an accompaniment. But that was more like the sax section of a big band, Surprisingly pleasant.
Do you remember my record "13 Friendly Numbers"? That was an attempt to use multiple saxophones without them sounding anything like saxophone quartets, treating them more like electronic synthesis, really. Not wanting to sound like saxophone quartets at that time maybe led to that.
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Part 1, from The Classic Guide To Strategy (1981)
John Zorn (sax mouthpieces, duck calls).

I guess it's John Zorn.

Well done! What gave it away?

A lot of these sounds have become quite common currency, but he has a way of really self-editing as he plays, you get a very clear statement of one sound and then a very clear statement of another, as if he were doing a tape splice. Other people tend to be a bit more blurred about it, a different sort of energy. I know he did this kind of thing with mouthpieces and bowls of water. I've never heard him do it on a CD but I did hear him doing that kind of thing at one of Derek Bailey's "Company" weeks.

This is an early solo record, from 1981.

It's very strong. It doesn't strike me as much of an improvisational outing, but in terms of drama with unusual sounds, it's strong.

If someone asked you to identify the musical logic in it, what would you say?

I don't know his own motives, but I'd say two things. One is an awareness of what's been done with reed music up to this point, and he's asking, okay, what remains to be done with reed music? That instrumental kind of thing is - less so these days - but in earlier decades it was quite a strong, driving thing - where can the instrument go next? And this is a very dismantled instrument, it's just mouthpieces and duck calls and bowls of water.
And then, I may be misquoting him, but didn't he once say that he's only got a short attention span? This was no doubt said sarcastically. Very short ideas, and each one has a fascination in its own way, whether it's the sound or the internal rhythms of the sound, and it's a bit like somebody gets bored with that sound and goes to the next one, and then the next one.... and I actually find that after five minutes it gets exhausting because things are changing so much.

Well, this track lasts for 19 minutes....

It's got a definite energy, it's high energy, but it's not to do with jazz. If you look at his later music-making, which he says has been influenced by people who wrote early cartoon-music, where you're setting music to the action and there's a different sound effect each time.... As far as I know he used to have these index cards where he would have ideas on them, and shuffle them, and play through them. There's no overall continuity, it's continual cut-and-paste.

I remember going to see Zorn at around the time of this recording, when he played in London for what might have been the first time, and this was the kind of performance he did. I enjoyed it at the time, but thinking about it later, I wondered what would have been the reaction of someone who might have chanced on the concert with no prior knowledge - if they would have asked themselves why they were sitting listening to a bloke blowing a duck call into a bowl of water.

I think there's a definite seriousness of intention and purpose. He's not really experimenting on stage. You can hear that he's done this many times before and he's largely knowing what he's going for. And people recognise that in a performer, so you don't get that - oh, any bloke can do that, kind of thing. There's obviously a different degree of technical skill involved in this than in playing saxophone like Sidney Bechet - they're incomparable as techniques.
Some people have this thing about musical instruments - that it's difficult to do that, it's taken years to learn it, so that makes it good. Like, oh, that's real music. Whereas it's clear that the stuff which is quite easy to do can be more interesting than 'real' music. Not always! Those ideas of technique were turned on their head in the 60s, of course, but you don't need to keep doing that. I've heard some terrible performances from people who still think that the whole idea is anyone can do it. And we do seem to have antennae to recognise when the theatrical side is actually part of someone's approach to performance, and when they tack it on and it becomes excruciatingly embarrassing.

I sent Zorn some music I'd done a while ago. I was trying to find a way to do a large-scale piece for saxophones. And he sent me back a postcard which said, "Dear Butcher, I don't like the saxophone".
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They Say It's Wonderful, from John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman (1963)
John Coltrane (ts); McCoy Tyner (p); Jimmy Garrison (b); Elvin Jones (dl); Johnny Hartman (v).

I'm not great on singers. but is it Johnny Hartman? Then it must be the one with Coltrane. Like the one he did with Ellington, where it's not his band, this puts him in a different light.

How do you deal with Coltrane, as presumably every modern saxophone player must?

I've gone through many stages. from being a big fan to having to stop listening to him any more. I did that because he was such a big influence on so many players, and there was a time when so many players were sounding like him that I became a bit sick of the whole thing. Then, one day I was playing in Poland, and in the club they put on A Love Supreme, and having not heard the real thing for seven or eight years, the whole extraordinary quality of it came back, and I realised again how fantastic he is. So it's nothing to do with Coltrane, really, it's to do with my relationship with his music. With such enormous figures like that, your own relationship to them is going to be very complex, I think. People who cast long shadows - if that's the right term - they become iconographic and mythic, and it's hard to separate the music from the perception of them, all that writing about them.

Tell us who your early influences on the saxophone were, then.

I'm not sure that if you really like someone that makes them an influence - probably it does. Usually an influence means that you try and sound like them, which is a slightly different thing. Listening to Coltrane has been very influential, but not in the sense of attempting to copy him. And things you don't like can be as influential as things you do.
I started playing with Chris Burn when we met at university, which would be around '76, '77, and this was sort of fumbling our way into jazz. By the beginning of the 80s I'd become much more involved in improvising, and he'd moved away from the piano keyboard and worked directly on the strings - and I tried to find ways of working with strings like that. You can get so many different colours and variables and overtones in the sound. I wanted to get away from the saxophone as this linear musical typewriter which punches out notes. I wanted to find multiple sounds on it. And that was a practical response to trying to improvise with the way Chris was working with the piano. I'm sure it sounded terrible for quite a while and then things started coming through which I could control and work with. I tried not to do anything which was to do with conventional saxophone playing, and after you've done that, it turns your head around.

That was a pretty severe agenda you set yourself, wasn't it?

I don't know if I was confused, or not, but it seemed to me in the second half of the 70s that jazz had come to an end. It had fragmented, and those fragments led in some very interesting directions, one of which was the European free improvising scene, as opposed to the free jazz scene. And I was also very interested in some composed electronic music, like Xenakis and Berio, those sort of soundworlds. They conjure up, through electronic music on tape, like the Zorn we heard there, how you break lines down. You don't have to have that flow that’s connected to the body - if you play a certain way, it becomes part of your body mannerisms. Instead, you're thinking about sounds and juxtaposing unfamiliar sounds. I still really like the energy of jazz, but it's a problem how to work in that new sound world, and keep the energy of jazz without ideas like having soloists. And these were ideas which Stevens had been putting into practice for many years, although I wasn't aware of it. It really feIt like something fresh and new happening. Then it came as a shock ten years later when the new British jazz explosion happened, and all of a sudden that work was consigned to history. It was as if something was back on course again - phew, we got that out of the way, nobody liked it very much, we can get back to the real stuff! And I thought I was doing the real stuff....

You mean the Courtney Pine-Loose Tubes era. Most people see that as the great renaissance!

I was quite hardcore then about - oh, this is real reactionary, safe, turning-the-clock-back, Thatcherite music-making. But again, that was the arrogance of youth, and I don't see it that way any more.

Courtney Pine had played with John Stevens, too.

Yes, and I think John was quite influential in getting Courtney out and about in the early days. He's clearly a musician of considerable strength, getting to an audience who wouldn't have come near a person playing a saxophone. I'm much happier with plurality now than I was then, but when you're looking for something you can contribute yourself - by necessity you become quite single-minded. Focusing on one direction implies being critical of other directions.
I suppose I see myself as a modernist rather than a post-modernist. For me, free improvisation was more of a life-choice than a musical idiom-choice. It had a lot of ramifications which weren't just to do with music - searching out a different relationship with the audience, a different means for people to experience music, not playing the games of advertising and commercial promotion. And a certain egalitarianism, although it's always interesting to see how that sits with some of the biggest egos I've ever come across.
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The Wounded Savage, from No Nothing (1991)
Peter Brötzmann (ts solo).

(After several minutes of careful listening). Well, have a guess!

Well, it could be a Brötzmann thing. Or Roscoe Mitchell? I don't actually recognise any of these ingredients.

It is Brötzmann.

It is? I thought the opening blast was like Brötzmann, but when he got into that kind of continuous playing, I haven't really heard him do that. (As a trenchant moment comes up) Now that sounds like Brötzmann. Roscoe's somebody who I've never heard solo, but people have told me be might sound a bit like this. This is kind of unusual for Brötzmann.

Any kind of influence on you?

Yes, but in that sense of the world only needs one Peter Brötzmann. It's the kind of thing which I've heard a lot of people imitate and not do with anything like the passion and conviction he's got.

Have you had the opportunity to play with Peter's generation of players much?

John Stevens, Derek, Fred Van Hove. I did one duo with Misha Mengelberg, which I enjoyed very much. When he starts playing his little melodies and things, that's an area I don't go into naturally....
I like improvising groups where anybody can momentarily lead it, or where no individual musician has to make a really big gesture to change the direction of what's happening. In the trio with Phil Durrant and John Russell, when it played well, it worked like that. Everybody was steering it, three hands on the tiller.
Early on, I tried not to get involved in situations where I was like the soloist, a traditional saxophone role. Like not playing with drummers, because of that standard saxophone and drums dynamic. But that was an attempt to unload some baggage and try and find some new things, and now I can go back to playing with drummers again.
I was lucky that there were a number of other musicians of my age who I could work and experiment with. When you feel it's your own age group, you can make a fool of yourself, or make mistakes, and it's part of the process. If you want to chase too much playing with people who've already developed something substantial of their own, you're forced into their world. Some players go name-chasing and tick them off as they play with them, but I think you're less likely to find your own way. Although, who does find their own way?
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Quartet 1, from The Tony Oxley Quartet (1992)
Derek Bailey (g); Tony Oxley (perc); Pat Thomas (elec); Matt Wand (drum machine, tapes).

Derek Bailey and.... Ingar Zach? Oh, it's Oxley and.... probably Pat Thomas, and I think Matt Wand's in there somewhere.

Tell us about the difficulties of playing with electronics.

There's a lot of different kinds of electronics now. The earlier school, if you like, which this is part of - they can chop and change between, not just quite different sounds, but idiomatic references can come flowing in and out, and if you're using samplers you can have a little snippet of three beats from an organ trio, and then something else, and then something else - how do you respond to that on the saxophone, when every time somebody throws something at you they then pull the carpet out from under you? I've worked with (Steve) Beresford a bit, and he can be like that. You can get into something, then suddenly it's all gone - it can he twittering birds where a minute ago it was rumbling big-band music. In a way there's a kind of energy there, because the ingredients can be like rhythmic stabs in the music, as much as referring to idioms.

But there's also a new area of electronic music, from some of Viennese musicians I work with, for instance, which seems to be very concerned with not having the kind of expressive quality from this locality of playing, particularly with the laptop players. You can have very slow-moving, sustained sounds, which begin and end cleanly, and it's completely different from an acoustic instrument, which has various problem areas - a note always starts with some measure of attack. I find that an interesting area to work in, too.
I don't want to remove expression from what I do, but it's intriguing to try and pull yourself away from the way your body makes you play and into the way your mind might make you play. Which is what the laptop people are doing. There's no physical relationship between what they're doing and the sounds they're making. It's as if it's straight from up there and into the sound source. To me, that's the most significant split in improvised music in recent times. Ultimately, my roots are in this English, quick-listening, quick-response way of playing.

There might be a problem for the listener in all this. Some of these situations may have conceptual and procedural substance for the participants, while the audience could question whether it's actually interesting to listen to.

The drones have really taken over a lot of the electronic side. I don't know if it's a generational thing, but what I've found at some of these festivals is that the audience seem to work in a different time-frame. I don't know if it's drugs, or whatever (laughs).
In many ways, the most influential improvising group has turned out to be AMM, at least as far as the younger scene is concerned. You could say that it's easier to approach from that direction, rather than the kind of instrumental virtuosity represented by Evan or John.
The best players in this area, I find, are usually those who've had some background on a conventional instrument first and have then gone into electronics. Some of the fans of that kind of music would say it just shows how empty instrumental virtuosity is, and what matters is what your ideas are, not ten years of working in a little room on the physical problems of your instrument. But I think that those ten years of working on the minutiae of your instrument are invaluable. You're focusing on sound, controlling sound, and ultimately the body is the fastest physical controller.
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Senco-Turno, from Hall of Mirrors (1990)
Evan Parker (ss); Walter Pratl (elec).

It's Evan, with ... is it Walter Prati?

Yes. I seem to remember when this disc came out it was a bit shocking, because Evan hadn't done much playing with any kind of electronics. Two things to ask here: what kind of influence does Evan have? Is he as 'inescapable' as Coltrane for someone like yourself?

It is an inescapable influence, partly through the consistency of his approach, and the dedication, regardless of the content of the music. It permeates the scene. I'd been fiddling around trying to get the saxophone to do something else before I was really aware of Evan, and the first time I heard him it was very clear that he had really worked to take certain things to a very inspiring level of control. Things that other people had touched on, he focused and learned to control, in very abstruse areas of the instrument. His example of doing that makes you realise that the possibilities of acoustic instruments are - not endless, but there are far more ways of making them fit what you want to do than the received wisdom about what the instrument allows. It was inspiring to hear someone who's bent the instrument to make the music they want to play. That goes for Derek (Bailey), too.
Some people have said, with some of the sound areas I've gone into, why are you still using the saxophone? You could do it more easily with this, that or the other. But to me it always sounds like a saxophone. It has a continuity, which glues the music together.

This piece is interesting, because a lot of people who work with electronics become part of the electronics, but his voice is very clear in this, without it sounding out of place. Wind instruments and electronics can be a chalk-and-cheese mixture.
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Let's Call This, from Round Midnight (1981)
Steve Lacy (ss): Mal Waldron (p).
HAT ART 2-6172

Oh, Steve Lacy. With Mal Waldron? It's the pounding foot that gives that one away.

Again, an influence all you?

Again, in the sense that he puts up something very strong and deep, and I had enough respect for it not to want to go there. The influential thing, I suppose, is recognising somebody else's vision. I remember the first time I heard him, at the ICA, playing solo. The first half of the concert I was pulling my hair out, because it was so slow. And then I got it, and I really enjoyed it. He had such a beautiful sound, it gives you time to hear the great quality of every note.

Tell us about playing solo, as an improviser.

I suppose it's the closest you come to being a composer, though that's not the interesting thing about playing solo. I know that the first few times I did it, I mapped pieces out and worked in that way. And then I felt what I was doing was playing routines, which wasn't interesting to me. The most dangerous thing is you discover after a time what audiences like - certain things you know which they all go for. How much of that do you put into a solo concert? These days I try to start without an idea in my head, and then start, and then something comes from somewhere - the room, the space, the audience, and the history of what you've played before. I think most audiences can recognise the sense of somebody developing something in front of their ears, and they recognise that as a vital part of improvising. They can hear the reasons why something's happening. The audience for improvised music may he small, but it's sophisticated. For me, doing a solo concert is something I prepare for physically and mentally, without actually practising anything I might do in the concert.

What do you do if it's not going well?

Sometimes in this area of playing you can make the same mistakes over and over again, which can be frustrating. I try to find some acoustic quality of the room which will respond to a particular aspect of playing, and explore that. If I mismatch that, and try and force that idea, it can be a disaster.
It gets dangerous when it gets too self-consciously like art. So much of the visual arts are people clamouring to find some little aspect which they can trademark, which makes themselves recognisable, and there's a good deal of that in music too. The earlier improvisers, it seemed to me, were trying to find a language which was very flexible. Some of the younger players are trying to find just a little element which they want to work with, and it's not at all malleable in an improvising situation. It just produces a pseudo-composition. At one time, striving for newness is a radical act, and at other times, it's conservative.

©Jazz Review 2004