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London Broil: John Butcher at The Stone, NYC

Gordon Marshall By

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John Butcher
The Stone
East Village, Manhattan
New York, New York
November 14, 2009


On a sheer sonic level, John Butcher goes further into his instrument—and further out of it—than any of his monumental precursors in the iconoclast tradition of abstract British improvising. Not that he's going to bury such icons as Terry Day, Trevor Watts, or Evan Parker; but as he demonstrated in solo performance last week at The Stone in Manhattan, this tenor and soprano saxophonist—trained in physics—is particularly well-attuned to the properties and propensities of the sound produced by his horns, apart from its customary dissection into elements of harmonic theory and acoustic principles, and takes it to places unknown to most listeners until now.

Butcher is a second generation British improviser who owes much to the first generation's key tenor saxophonist Evan Parker. For many students of the evolution of the saxophone, Parker is the instrument's most radical innovator since John Coltrane, having taken the latter's lightning glissandos and modal arpeggios (initially dubbed "sheets of sound" by critics at a loss for words to describe tone and technique heretofore unheard from a tenor saxophone) and pushed them further into the realm of abstraction and arhythmics. Indeed, Parker and his European cohorts evolved a spontaneous style of composition in the late sixties quite unlike that of their American counterparts, one that, along with aleatory possibilities, emphasized structural synchronicity as opposed to the raw and emotional, now-jubilant/now-furious effusions of Stateside "free jazz" as it's developed over the past fifty years.

Butcher also draws from the British school's preeminent guitarist, Derek Bailey—Bailey, who took structuralism to the point of making overtones and harmonics the key elements of his works. Bailey also did much work outdoors and in exotic locations, bringing environment and its variables into play, as has Butcher, especially apparent on his recent release, Resonant Spaces (Confront, 2009).

Resonant Spaces, recorded across England and Scotland, might seem a far distance from The Stone, John Zorn's stark, black and white performance space in the East Village where Butcher began his solo set on tenor sax with an intonation verging on incantation. Establishing and very slowy intensifying a drone that split into harmonics, he made his sax sound like double reed instruments, from a bassoon to bagpipes. The sound had an almost medieval feel at times, evoking large sonorous cathedrals capable of multiplying the strophes of Gregorian chant and plainsong. In Resonant Spaces he's explored sonic properties of a cave, a reservoir, a mausoleum—and even an iron tank. His initial drone in this contemporary, urban enclave broke into a cavalcade of crescendos, almost transforming the space into a sacred temple.

On the next number, also on tenor, he played one-man-band, laying down a funky groove, without aid of rhythm section, by means of a bass vamp interspersed with melody played in a higher register, the strain practically becoming a micro-retrospective of sax history, now Hawk and Bird, now Coltrane peeking out. To be sure, these were not influences worn on a sleeve: the inflections were scrambled and encrypted—a blindfold test for a sonic and saxophone oenophile yet enough to intoxicate the less analytic listener, except that Butcher has a tendency to pull back at unexpected moments, presenting listeners with fragments of silence, after which they immediately come to their senses.

He introduced the soprano with some restrained but noisy reed biting, then popped out a tuneful string of choppy tones suggestive of a child practicing trumpet—for example, a segue into a frenetic modal run short-circuited by cartoon-like blips. Through this calibrated whimsy he colonizes the minds of the audience, bringing their thoughts into his personal heady game by way of familiar references to childhood and popular culture. No doubt for some listeners congregated on this night at The Stone, the approach evoked John Zorn's cut-and-paste thing.

In his next solo Butcher transformed the soprano into other instruments, now flute, next piano strings plucked and keys struck. Overtones so keen your eardrums rang, the sound going in and out at once, the noise in the listener's ears blending with the already contrapuntal lines of the solo sax: in fugal form. Butcher isn't satisfied turning the venue into a soundboard: he makes the listener's body, unexpectedly and willy-nilly, another element of his instrument.

He returned to tenor for his final number, rasping and burring into reed, now like engine in idling auto, now like birds chirping on a fountain bubbling. He even mimed the sound of a grinding rock guitar, before fading out with harsh whacks of the mouthpiece—like a man in the woods trying to light stumpy wooden matches on a stone.

I once asked Zorn if the "Stone" was the philosopher's stone. He told me it was "any stone you can think of." I found out later that the space was named after a venerated patron of New York jazz. However this may be, the Stone for some of us will always be the one John Butcher struck his mammoth, miraculous matches to, this night of November 14 in Manhattan, igniting no mere spark but a sonic conflagration in the heads of those who listened.

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