Free improvisers favor ephemeral lineups more than most musicians. They keep things fresh and present new challenges. But most improvisers are also fond of particular groupings or connections. That's definitely the case with the British pairing of saxophonist John Butcher, keyboardist and electronicist Pat Thomas and Norwegian drummer Stale Liavik Solberg. They have worked together in various constellations, such that Fictional Souvenirs might be seen as a follow up of sorts to His Flights At Ten (Iluso, 2018) by a group which also included bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and saxophonist Lotte Anker, or as an augmented version of the duo which made So Beautiful, It Starts To Rain (Clean Feed, 2016) with the addition of Thomas.
So the palpable sense of listening and responding which pervades this live performance, recorded at London's Iklectik in summer 2017, might be expected. It betrays a degree of familiarity and trust. The three principals combine to fashion captivating narratives from unconventional means on six seat-of-the-pants confections. Who leads and who follows is open to debate at any given moment. They each judge whether to play or not and when to force the issue, which makes those times when they press foot to the floor, as towards the end of "Dust" and "The Effort And A Smile," all the more powerful.
Thomas forgoes the piano for electronics derived from his Moog theremini and iPad to purvey an endless selection of beeps, shimmers and thuds. The vocabulary doesn't really exist to describe the range of sounds he extracts. It's the same with Butcher, who has forged an audacious personal language from the precise control of overtones and multiphonics. At times the saxophonist recalls the late Steve Lacy in the way he constructs his improvisation by reiterating a certain phrase then switching abruptly to a different repeated cell. His shifts often provide the signal for his partners to change tack too. Solberg is especially sensitive in this regard, and his insistent pulses provide a further layer of substructure to the music.
After a conversational opening, "Dust" settles into an unbroken stream of quacking metallic-edged soprano phrases against Thomas' repetitive scuffle, which is given an inspired lift when Solberg kicks in on the final straight. By contrast "Heartaches" is notable for its restraint. Butcher adopts a variety of approaches on the concluding "Keys," first proposing a two-note question in call/response to Thomas' rejoinders, and then later offering a jaunty retort to Solberg's rat-a-tat, before they all move swiftly on to the more abstract exchange, which characterizes this accomplished outing.
Dust; Heartaches; The Solution; Threads; The Effort And A Smile; Keys.
Pat Thomas: Moog theremini, iPad-based electronics; John Butcher: soprano and tenor saxophones; Ståle Liavik Solberg: drums, percussion.