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It is an interesting comment on the state of improvised music across Europe that Empire is performed by a Portuguese trio joined by an English saxophonist, released on a Lithuanian record label, pressed in Germany. Studio-recorded in Lisbon in April 2010, Empire has been released on 12" vinyl in a limited edition, housed in a very appealing sleeve. The LP format provides full, rich sound that allows each note of every player to be heard clearly and distinctly.
The threesome of pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini has one previous CD release, RED Trio (Clean Feed, 2010). They do not play as a conventional piano trio, with a hierarchy of solo piano plus supporting rhythm section; instead, all three improvise simultaneously, complementing and mirroring each other to create an ever-shifting tapestry of sound in which the contributions of the individual instruments often become indistinguishable. It is a setup into which saxophonist John Butcher
fits easily, sounding as if he has been playing with them for years; the foursome sounds like a quartet rather than a trio plus "guest."
From the start of the opening track, "Sustained," the quartet's sound echoes RED Trio, with the added element of Butcher's saxophone. But the resulting music is not defined by Butcher conforming to the trio's methodology or vice versa; instead, the music lies somewhere between that of Butcher and the trio, compatible with both, suiting and flowing easily from all four players. Contrary to the trio's ethos, because of the nature of the saxophone's tones, Butcher is largely distinguishable from the others. When he creates a series of sustained and fluctuating tones, they sit as a layer on top of the trio, sounding totally natural and in place, the context ideally showcasing his playing.
The transition into the next track, "Pachyderm" is virtually seamless, although there is soon a noticeable shift in methodology, with the saxophone sounding more integrated into the trio as all four players create a fluctuating drone effect from overlapping sounds; Butcher is still clearly distinguishable, but sounds less on top, more inside. Pinheiro matches Butcher for energy and variety, the two complementing each other well as they engage in a dialogue.
Turning the disc over, the title track is the album's longest, a 23-minute tour de force, the length of which pushes the LP format to its limits. Beginning in relatively subdued fashion, it builds momentum imperceptibly across its length, with Butcher gradually becoming more inventive and garrulous. As before, the interactions between piano and saxophone are exemplary, with the two spurring each other on repeatedly, with Faustino's interjections acting as punctuation.
The music here is a successful combination of its elements, sure to be equally pleasing to aficionados of Butcher or RED trio. Butcher already has a considerable portfolio of occasional collaborators; on this evidence, RED trio should be added to it.
Track Listing: Sustained; Pachyderm: Empire.
Personnel: Rodrigo Pinheiro: piano; Hernani Faustino: double-bass; Gabriel Ferrandini: drums and percussion; John Butcher: tenor and soprano saxophones.