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From John Butcher’s Collection


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An old saying tells us it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. In the case of Covid-19 and its repercussions, many people would have to wrack their brains to think of any good that ill wind had blown to anyone. Musically, though, there is an increasing number of impressive album releases that were conceived and recorded during lockdown (even if they cannot be promoted by live events.) In addition, quite a few musicians have been revisiting and reassessing past recordings which were never released.

One such is saxophonist John Butcher who went through his collection of previously unreleased concert material and selected seven albums which he released digitally, on his own Weight of Wax label, at monthly intervals, the earliest recording dating from May 1999, the most recent from March 2019. The seven feature Butcher solo, in three different duos (one of them twice), in a trio and a quintet. The series is poignantly entitled 'The Memory of Live Music.' Three of the seven are reviewed below, but the entire series is unconditionally recommended. Butcher is not sure if he will continue to issue more, but says it was intriguing going through his collection. So, the ill wind of the pandemic has already blown plenty of good in the direction of Butcher aficionados.

John Butcher
On Being Observed
Weight of Wax

Butcher's discography is already peppered with excellent solo albums; with On Being Observed, he has compiled a compelling album of previously unreleased solo tracks dating from the years 2000 to 2011. The album's six tracks are bookended by two, "The Glad Road" and "The Steam Fact," which were recorded in September 2006 inside the huge cylindrical gasometer at Oberhausen, Germany, at the same concert where "Trägerfrequenz," on Butcher's The Geometry of Sentiment (Emanem, 2007), was recorded, that album also consisting of recordings from several locations. As with countless other Butcher recordings made inside resonant spaces, the two here are fascinating as Butcher listens and reacts to the resounding echoes of his own playing, effectively playing a duo with himself or with the gasometer itself; music which can be listened to repeatedly, always coming up trumps.

Another link to The Geometry of Sentiment comes with "For Derek at 70," which was recorded in London in 2000, for a Derek Bailey seventieth birthday album which never came to fruition. Uncannily, the Emanem album has a track entitled "But More So (For Derek Bailey)," recorded in Paris in November 2006—after Bailey's death in December 2005—which makes a near perfect companion piece to the 2000 one; it is recommended to hear the two back-to-back.

The remaining three tracks on On Being Observed give further insight into the life of a globetrotting improvising musician, "Loose in the Night" having been recorded live in March 2001 outside the "Bop Shop," Village Gate Square, Rochester, New York, "Phantasmagoria" (the only one of the six to feature Butcher on soprano sax not tenor) live at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival, in July 2006, and "Cut me in on the Juicy Stuff" live in February 2011, inside the chilly twelfth century Castle Vault, Southampton, UK, sharing the bill with a realisation of Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting In A Room." Together with the rest of the album, these tracks demonstrate that, whatever the environment or location, Butcher always delivers a performance that is impossible to mistake for any other player, and is engrossing from first note to last. For newcomers to Butcher's music, On Being Observed is recommended as an ideal introduction to his solo playing. Long-standing Butcher followers will need no such recommendation; for them, Butcher's name on a recording is recommendation enough...

Thurston Moore, John Edwards, Terry Day, John Butcher, Steve Beresford
Stovelit Lines
Weight of Wax

In complete contrast to On Being Observed, this quintet album features music from just one evening. Recorded live at Iklectik, London, on November 20th 2017, the album's three tracks, totalling forty-five minutes, feature a one-off collaboration between Butcher, three other regulars on the London improv scene—Steve Beresford on piano & electronics, Terry Day on drums, John Edwards on bass—and guitarist Thurston Moore who had recently become a London resident at the time; Stovelit Lines is noteworthy, as recordings of Butcher in quintets are scarce, being countable on the fingers of one hand.

The sound of a sustained note from Butcher opens the album amid an assortment of sounds from the other players, notably electronics from Beresford and percussion support from Day. However, it soon becomes difficult (and irrelevant) to distinguish individual contributions as all five contribute to the construction of an amorphous, ever-shifting soundscape from which an occasional sound bubbles to the surface before being subsumed back into the collective collage. Moore's improv credentials are on display as he adds his own high, metallic notes to the brew without looking to be spotlighted, just one of the guys. Although Butcher is not audible for considerable periods of "Part 1," he surfaces for its closing minutes, producing a subdued but lively solo which finishes the piece on a high.

" Part 2" opens with some emphatic notes from Beresford's piano, which sound as if they might have been intended to steer the piece; whether or not that was the case, they have that effect and the piece displays more structure than the opener. Throughout, Butcher and Moore trade phrases, with Beresford's electronics adding coloration, while Edwards and Day provide punctuation and support, without ever falling into the role of rhythm section. A barnstorming ending closes out a very satisfying piece from all five players.

After an opening exchange between Moore and Butcher, "Part 3" features the saxophonist prominently throughout; with trademark contributions from everyone concerned, the piece acts as a satisfying finale to a richly varied album which makes an excellent advertisement for the attractions of free improvisation.

John Butcher & Riccardo La Foresta
Live in Italy
Weight of Wax

It is no surprise that four of this batch of seven releases are duo recordings, as duos dominate Butcher's discography. Of the four, one is with John Edwards, recorded at two London concerts in 1999 and 2009, bracketing the 2001 and 2002 Butcher-Edwards duo recordings on their album Optic (Emanem, 2003); two are with harpist Rhodri Davies, the first dating from a duo tour of Japan in 2004, the second from a 2018 recording at Cave 12, Geneva; Butcher and Davies first recorded as a duo in 2000.

The fourth duo of this batch breaks new ground, but joins an impressive list of duos pairing Butcher with drummers, including Gerry Hemingway, Paal Nilssen-Love, Steve Noble, Eddie Prevost, Gino Robair, Mark Sanders, Ståle Liavik Solberg and Dylan van der Schyff. To that list can be added Italian percussionist Riccardo La Foresta, with Live in Italy dating from two Italian concerts in 2019. As so often in Butcher's duos with percussionists, the music is an equitable balance between the two players, with neither dominating. Butcher employs both tenor and soprano, giving the music variety and drama. Just as Butcher is an experimental saxophonist who has explored the use of electronics with his saxophones, notably including multi-tracking and feedback sax, so La Foresta has experimented and innovated with his drums, having developed the drummophone which he is pictured playing on the album's cover. In addition to rhythmic passages, this device can produce prolonged tones which swell up gradually, at times sounding uncannily similar to a saxophone, and so being an ideal complement to Butcher's own playing. When Butcher and La Foresta both peak, the results are exhilarating. The two sound like kindred spirits and this recording bodes well for further collaborations.

Tracks and Personnel

On Being Observed

Tracks: The Glad Roar; Loose in the Night; Phantasmagoria; For Derek at 70; Cut me in on the Juicy Stuff; The Steam Factory.

Personnel: John Butcher: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone.

Stovelit Lines

Tracks: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

Personnel: Thurston Moore: guitar; John Edwards: double bass; Terry Day: drums; John Butcher: saxophones; Steve Beresford: piano, electronics.

Live in Italy

Tracks: Padova I; Padova II; Dobbia.

Personnel: John Butcher: saxophones; Riccardo La Foresta: drummophone, percussion.

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