John Butcher & Toshimaru Nakamura: Cavern with Nightlife (2004)
British saxophonist John Butcher has an exceptional ear for nuance and color on his instrument, and for that reason any new record is worth checking out. His approach to music draws from free improv, electroacoustic, and creative modern classical approaches, making it hard to classify, but it's generally quite abstract and involved, especially in timbre and tone.
But with close to forty documented appearances to date, thoughalone, in duos, and small groupsthere's a lot to choose from. In my experience his solo work offers the most crystalline focus, realized in glorious depth on last year's Invisible Ear with the use of close-miking, amplication/feedback, and multitracking.
Cavern with Nightlife, the first on his new Weight of Wax label, finds Butcher alone in the Oya Stone Museum (on the outskirts of Utsunomiya City, Japan), a most curious performance space with many advantages. The room, if you want to call the enormous cavern that, is actually a hollowed out stone mine sixty meters underground that was used for extraction of soft lava for seventy years, then converted and opened to the public. It might be the temperature (8°C), the vastness, or the stoneprobably some combination of the threebut Butcher's horn has an ethereal, otherworldly signature.
The first of four solo pieces, "Ideoplast," gets going with explorations of attack, Butcher blowing brief, sharp phrases with heavy overtones on tenor before engaging into a tremendously long, tremulous focus on essentially one "note" and then more ferociously milking dark and shrill effects. He picks up the soprano for "Ashfall" and explores the dynamics of attack and decay, building larger units from sharply overblown parts. "Mustard Bath," another soprano piece, insists on a long, violent trill which seems to draw strange spirits from the walls of the cavern, then continues with high-pitched blowing along other avenues.
The fifth and final piece on the record is a nearly twenty-minute duet with Toshimaru Nakamura, recorded at SuperDeluxe in Nishi-Azabu/Roppongi. Nakamura plays the "no-input mixing board" (reminding me of David Lee Myers, aka Arcane Device, playing inputless feedback machines). It's incredibly annoying to listen to. Truth be told, I got a headache and my ears were ringing for some time after my first spin. The problem is that there's a lot of very persistent, extremely high-pitched noise that destroys the sonic balance and crowds out anything interesting that might be happening elsewhere.
Other than the final track, Cavern with Nighlife is highly recommended for the same reasons that always make John Butcher worth paying close attention to: his sensitivity, creative use of tone and texture, and stark, concentrated energy.
Track Listing: Ideoplast; Ashfall; Mustard Bath; Ejecta; Practical Luxury.
Personnel: John Butcher: tenor and soprano saxophone (1-4), tenor saxophone (acoustic/amplified/feedback) (5). Toshimaru Nakamura: no-input mixing board (5).