In listening to improvised music at the start of the 21st century, it has become an easy trap to neatly categorize things by
finding precedents. Terms like post-bop, post-Ayler, and post-Parker (Charlie or Evan) are bandied about as convenient
means to describe a lineage or provide a pedigree. But there are musicians like John Butcher who come along and
confound all attempts at this type of labeling.
Butcher is as likely to
participate in collective, spontaneous improvisation as he is in contexts involving composition (whether as part of the
long-standing Chris Burn Ensemble or the London Improvisers Orchestra). His partners include many with whom he
has had long-term relationships like Burn, John Russell, or Phil Durrant and spontaneous meetings (like a jaw-dropping
performance with Joe Morris in Boston in the winter of 2000.)
Luckily, Butcher is fairly prolific in his recordings,
offering an opportunity to hear him in an almost dizzying array of contexts. An area he seems to particularly thrive in is
the intimacy of both solo and duet settings. On the recent CD Fixations (14), the Emanem label documented a series of
live solos Butcher performed between 1997 and 2000. The release at hand provides an intriguing companion to that one.
as it captures the reed player in two live duets; one with guitarist Derek Bailey and the other with harpist Rhodri Davies.
There is always a certain directness to improvisations when Derek Bailey is involved. The guitarist has honed a sound
and strategy to improvisation that is at once tightly focused and instantly recognizable while remaining remarkably
open to a broad variety of contexts for collective exploration. The two pieces here comprise the second set of a
performance Butcher and Bailey performed at the Vortex, a club in north London. Bailey's angular, clipped freedom
elicits a fluid, rapid-fire response from the reed player.
Butcher's playing is full of rough-scrubbed textures and sharp-edged attack used to spray cascading lines punctuated
with carefully wrought spaces and quiet, fluttering ebbs. There is plenty of careful listening going on as the two charge
headlong into these extended improvisations that build to a heated intensity.
The pieces with harpist Rhodri Davies have
the same intensity and abstraction, but instead of heated, conversational linearity, the improvisations seem to hover in
the atmosphere, exciting the air like charged particles. Recorded in a church in west London, the acoustics of the space
seem to act almost as a third player here. In Davies' hands, the harp becomes a new instrument full of phenomenal
timbral range. Skittering plucked lines are combined with scraped harmonics, bent and stretched notes, and percussive,
resonating sheets of metallic reverberation. Butcher responds with spare overtones and harmonics, pinched squeaks, and
flutters that float like flecked motes in a sunbeam. The improvisations progress with a sense of time that is slowed
down, magnifying every tiny nuance and gesture.
This duet release offers two compelling views of
Butcher's playing. Utilizing diverse strategies for spontaneous improvisations, both deliver equally engaging results.
© Michael Rosenstein - Cadence