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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource


John Butcher

By Published: June 11, 2005

AAJ: Yes. Sometimes you can see a group over a period of months and get an action replay of the same performance each time.

JB: Every room has a different acoustic and atmosphere. I'm not saying that you always play different music everywhere, but it is very subtle. You make little changes that are brought on by the circumstances of the playing. It is no good going into an improvising situation with too fixed an agenda. Maybe in the early days when you are doing it you tend to do that because there are certain things that you want to get happening. But after a while that becomes a very uninteresting sort of approach to take. Satisfaction has to come from making new discoveries yourself, through the performance. Beginning playing without a thought in your head is, for me, one of the most creative ways you can start a concert. Then something takes over, which is from the years of experience being brought to bear on that situation.

AAJ: Do you literally start without a thought in your head?

JB: I try to.

AAJ: But if you try to think about nothing, don't you inevitably think about something?

JB: Hmm.

AAJ And in a duo, if you are both doing that, what kick-starts the proceedings?

JB: It is curious, that. But once it starts then something else does take over. You are facing this psychologically very strange space. There is incredible concentration, but a lot of it isn't conscious concentration. A lot of it is weighing up what you are hearing with a decision-making process. You are a decision-making machine during it. I really don't know how that works, because it really is another world where your focus goes beyond that which you have in day-to-day experience. But you would be very hard put to try and recollect afterwards exactly what was making you make this decision and that decision. Some of it is experience. Some of it is reflexive. One of the dangers is falling into patterns; sometimes they are just physical patterns to do with how you play the instrument '- physically you have got used to the fact that you always follow this with that. Sometimes in playing, your conscious mind is actually trying to break those connections. You know that you have a tendency that if you play this note then you'll move there or give it that attack, and you try to break away from those things, those ingrained physical mannerisms. Then there are other things that you know work well from past experience and in one situation you might go with them again. Another time you might know that works well and it is too much like acting to pull it out again, so you try something else. There is a mixture of honesty and dishonesty, spontaneity and reflection; it can change within seconds somehow.

AAJ: On the technical side, you have a vast array of techniques that you use. Are you constantly pushing at the boundaries of those?

JB: There have been spells where I have worked quite intensively on the technical side of things. More and more these days, little things will suggest themselves in performance. I know enough about the instrument to be able to develop those things in performance. Then sometimes they will have a quality that makes me want to explore more when I get back home and do some practicing. It is a long time since I sat down and specifically worked through these explorations. There was a time when I was quite methodical, and was cataloguing multi-phonics and notating them, for instance. That was partly a response to wanting to control them, to be able to work with these materials like you can work with the conventional sounds of the instrument. These days, certain groups will make me want to explore certain areas in more detail. For instance, a group I work in with Austrian musicians, called Polwechsel, tends to work at very low dynamics, quite slowly evolving, not particularly expressive, in the expressionistic sense. Through playing with them I've come to explore more material that has those sorts of qualities, and the way the saxophone is so connected to breath and physical exertion means it doesn't lend itself that naturally to this sort of approach. The technical difficulties often stem from me playing in groups where the saxophone is a different instrument to the others. I often work with string players who can work very quietly and, in particular, produce sounds that overlap and sounds that decay. You can make the physical gesture of plucking a string and then allow that sound to decay before you have to make another physical gesture. If I stop the physical action then the sound stops. So, technically, I try to work on ways that can integrate themselves with those aspects of playing. The saxophone is very much an on- or-off instrument, but once you start thinking about that as a difficulty then you start finding solutions to it. Some are psycho-acoustical solutions because you can never really get that sense of sounds decaying, but you can get a sense of sounds that have some transparency, that change in their colour as they progress, which is not typical of the saxophone; which is this linear typewriter that punches out notes.

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