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


John Butcher

By Published: June 11, 2005

AAJ: When you play in duo settings, it seems that you are very different in different duos. I noticed it on the Vortices and Angels album, with Derek Bailey and with Rhodri Davies, and I noticed it again yesterday. Is that the result of going in with a clear mind and just responding to the stimuli?

JB: Improvising to me has always been about trying to play with people, perhaps that is the foremost thing. I think, generally speaking, that people will recognize it as me in the different situations, as there has been a lot of material released now. So I don't think I sound like different people. But I do definitely work in different ways. I don't want to come in and force anyone to play one kind of music just because I'm improvising with them. There is a slight tendency now for improvisers to behave a bit like visual artists, in wanting to get their copyright on one little area of sound or way of using sound, so that it is instantly recognizably them. Then they will bring that along to every improvising situation and just stick it in there. Sometimes that can produce quite interesting results, but if you are interested in doing a lot of playing, going out playing night after night, hopefully, I don't really see what is in that for the player. Playing with Derek, he has a very idiosyncratic style that he tends to stick to, but which he bends in a very musical way to whoever he is playing with. On the Vortices duos I wanted to get in with him at the level of the rhythmic drive. He is not the sort of musician where you will play a sound and let it hang in the air and wait to hear what he does; he'll have been through a couple of pages of his guitar vocabulary. You have got to try and get in there and work with his style, which, for me, means being as interactive as possible whilst keeping your own voice. Rhodri is more of a musician where you can play a sound and let it hang in the air and then see what the next consequence will be. But also those duets were in a church acoustic, which itself suggests different approaches to playing. Again, it's not so much about importing "my music" into each situation; each situation is unique.

AAJ: More than any other duo player I can think of, you seem to be accommodating to other players when you are in a duo setting.

JB: I like to interact and get inside the other player's work, so that we are both ... I suppose after all these years I should have come up with a good analogy. It is a bit like in a duo you are both supporting a third thing, which is going to collapse unless you are working very much together. It is not just the two voices; there is also this third thing that is being created that requires the two inputs to be very malleable. With Derek, I might start a phrase, then hear where he has gone '- the pitch he is playing, or something '- and I was thinking of going to A, but heard his input and think that it is better if I go to Z. This can happen in a flash, so you are continually modifying your intentions as you make the music, in terms of what you are hearing. So you end up somewhere that you really wouldn't have expected. A good improvisation is one where you produce music that none of the individual musicians could have imagined, in detail, before it happened. If it is too close to something that one musician could have said, "OK, let's play like that, then there has been some sort of failure in the improvisation. It still might still be good music, but it is not using what makes improvisation a unique method.

AAJ: When I interviewed Derek about a year ago, one of the things he said was that he thought solo playing was a second-rate activity compared to playing with other people. How would you feel about that?

JB: It is clear that he does quite often enjoy solo playing. And he has released some extraordinary solo music. It is always tricky because the individual musician is so familiar with their own work that it becomes very hard to judge things, whether it is good or bad. When you have the stimulus of other musicians present, it is exactly that, a stimulus. There is the shared sense of creativity and the mutual obligation makes things very different. I like both activities, but if you do too many solos you just become tired of your own sound. That may be what Derek means. You just can't judge it any more; am I just trotting it out or is something happening? Sometimes some magic will take over, but I think you have to ration it as an activity. For the listener, solos can be very involving, because then you can usually hear more clearly why things are happening. If you are new to listening in this area it is often best to listen to a solo musician, because the musician's intentions are comparatively clear, usually. I know when I was getting into it that the first things I really enjoyed were different people's solos, because you can really hear their voice.

AAJ: We have talked about solos and duos, but what about larger groups?

JB: I have been very closely involved with Chris Burns' Ensemble and we started that back in the days when there were a lot of strong feelings about what was working and what was not working. Both he and I felt that large group improvising was nearly always a disaster. Everything always ended up sounding the same. Things followed very clichéd patterns of dynamics and ways of interacting. We tried to find a different way of interacting in a large group. Ninety percent of that was choosing the right musicians to play with, who were interested in that kind of approach. We set up a few concerts. It had about 20 people in it at an early point, and then it got whittled down to eight. Instrumentally and personality-wise, that seemed to be a good number. We developed a way of playing that is very interactive but very maneuverable. It could do those changes on a sixpence that small group playing can do. I like that sense that at any time any one musician can change the structure of the music '- not by coming in and playing some really powerful statement, but by a little touch of something that would be just enough to cause it to go a different way. And it worked like that. Like any long-term group, it developed its own clichés after a while, but it was a deliberate break from the more jazz-oriented large groups that were playing, and from the heavy, really free-blowing groups like Globe Unity. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, John Stevens had also been doing quite a lot of work in large groups, often in workshop situations. I think he was trying to find different ways of getting large groups of improvisers to work together. It often ended up with him working with less professional musicians who had less obvious strength of vocabulary to put into the music. That was a different way of working. We wanted people who had very strong personal voices, but still find a way that they could interact together in a chamberish way. I still like that group very much. Some other larger groups I have played in, for shorter periods, have mixed composition and improvisation, like Georg Graewe had a group called the GrubenKlangOrchester, which was about 15 musicians; we half played compositions half improvised. Radu Malfatti's orkestra and Fred van Hove's t'nonet had other ways of working.

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