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


John Butcher

By Published: June 11, 2005

AAJ: And you have consciously developed those solutions?

JB: There was a strong element of conscious choice in the musicians I first started playing with in free improvisation. Early on I found myself involved with Chris Burn, who was working very much on the inside of the piano, and later John Russell and Phil Durrant, two acoustic, quietish string players, and playing the saxophone in a more conventional way would have just covered everything they were doing and would have been stupid because we were all interested in working in this world which takes you away from the idea of one instrument by its nature being a solo voice, or any instrument by its nature having a particular role in the music. We wanted to be able to choose what we played moment by moment. So it was necessary for me to find ways where, like a string player can bring out different overtones of the notes, I could try to do the same thing on a wind instrument. You play one sound and manipulate the different colours that are hidden in it. Chris Burn worked very diligently at the washes of sound that are available from playing directly on the strings inside the piano. I tried to find a way of getting inside those washes of sound rather than sounding like I'd been stuck on top of them.

AAJ: So what sorts of things would you do, what sort of techniques?

JB: When I really started exploring this sort of thing with Chris, we had been playing various areas of jazz together for about four years, and we made a conscious decision not to use any of the methods we had been using there. So that was why he left the keyboard and went inside the instrument. For a while I worked without anything that related too closely to pitch. Basically, that was a requirement. But once you start off on that road you soon start hearing the incredible pitch content of nearly all sounds and you work with that, as an element at least. Anyway, we weren't really performing in public in those days. It was exploratory work. One thing I tried to do was to get away from the idea of playing lines. You play a sequence where every sound on the instrument has a distinctly different quality to the preceding one. I was a little bit influenced by early electronic music, where you could cut and splice the tape, and go from a sine wave to white noise to a tone. It is a mental and physical effort on the saxophone to do it, to try and think your way through a sequence of events where each sound almost sounds like it comes from a different instrument. ... If you do that, it breaks you away from that idea of playing a conventional line, and you find that you can then work that into what the string players and suchlike are doing. Another thing is dynamics; another is putting space between sounds. I used to play a lot of trumpet exercises because I always liked the way that brass players would articulate notes. You would get a clean start to a note, whereas most saxophone players tend to run notes together. Once you think about putting more daylight between notes, or in between your sounds, it adds extra possibilities. There is always the danger that you throw the baby out with the bathwater, so sometimes the musical results were not that interesting, but it was a necessary thing for us to go through, to make a break with what we had been doing before. And then slowly other elements started getting reintroduced into the music. I started reintroducing notes and became more interested in making connections between material, rather than just looking at one area of sound. Overall, that is my main area of interest. Some people have said that I deconstructed the saxophone, but I always think it is a case of reconstruction, of expanding it, adding to the instrument things beyond what most people expect of the saxophone.

AAJ: Beyond the technical stuff, you have said in the past that the end result must be music not sound.

JB: Every musician thinks about the technical things, particularly playing these instruments that are so connected with your body. There are a lot of hours you have to put in to control it. You have got a piece of wood vibrating in your mouth that you are controlling with your breath and lips; and it's resonating an air column that you can manipulate. Basically, that is all it is. Technique gets a bad name when you hear players who, in the conventional sense, have remarkable technique but who produce very bland music. In improvisation and "experimental" music the whole notion of virtuosity has been re-examined. Quite rightly, a lot of people shied away from that obvious virtuosity. Although, I think, most of the players who really delivered something in the early days of improvised music were true virtuosos. Very little of long-term consequence came from the more anarchic approach that was running parallel at the time. A lot of energy went back to instrumental skill put to the service of the kind of music that it made sense to play in those days. The whole question of things like virtuosity is very coloured now there is so much electronic music around. You are reassessing the notion of what "skill means. People's ears have changed as a result of that. There was a time when someone might come up to me after a performance and say, "That was an incredible sound. I've never heard anything like that. Basically, nobody does that anymore. People have heard so many sound possibilities from electronic sources that a lot of them don't pay much attention to the fact that that a piano or saxophone wasn't meant to sound like that, and that quite a lot of years of research and work have produced it. But that's healthy, as the "how" is not the important thing.

AAJ: And also, improvised music is now far more established. It has been around long enough to have impinged on most people.

JB: Yes. I suppose I started 10 years behind the English pioneers of it. But for me, in my early days, we still got a lot of distrust and dislike because of the kinds of sounds we were working with. It almost never happens now. People coming across it now for the first time almost never get bothered by the sounds. People might get bored because the rhythmic elements of improvised music tend to be different to what they are used to; if you take away a regularly stated rhythm some people tend to get twitchy. But because of the kinds of sounds that are around everywhere, in dance music for instance, the sounds are hardly an issue anymore.

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