John Butcher / Thomas Lehn / Matthew Shipp: The Clawed Stone

John Sharpe By

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John Butcher / Thomas Lehn / Matthew Shipp: The Clawed Stone
The unlikely conjunction of American pianist Matthew Shipp, most strongly associated with New York avant jazz, and British saxophonist John Butcher and German electronicist Thomas Lehn, two leading exponents of the European free improvisation scene, works like a dream on The Clawed Stone. It's not a one off. The genesis of this 2017 Paris studio session lies in the pianist's invite for Butcher to join him as part of a 2010 residency at London's Cafe Oto, which was documented as At Oto (Fataka, 2011). The relationship endured and Butcher suggested adding Lehn to the lineup when they reunited at Cafe Oto in 2014, also documented, as Tangle (Fataka, 2016).

While the first two encounters were live recordings, this time the studio setting offers the possibility of editing through the selection from a number of short self-contained pieces. Owing to such disparate origins, the three principals create a sound with few precedents. The results are both totally unpredictable and yet strangely logical. Each of the eight cuts defies description in its density of event, fast mutation and episodic shape shifting. It's impossible to know whether a response will be sympathetic or disruptive, and in fact there is a fair share of both.

While avoiding overtly jazzy tropes, Shipp nonetheless remains instantly recognizable and true to himself. His rhythmic figures provide an accessible entry point to the improvisations, but one which is often swiftly subsumed. Butcher manipulates the overtones and harmonics of the saxophone, deploying them in unexpected and oblique ways. Lehn is both wild card and colorist. At times he blends closely with both Shipp and Butcher, only to generate thrilling dissonance as he diverges.

It's easy to hear why some pieces might have been chosen. Hushed and solemn in its beginning, "Stitched Equivalence" contains passages of interwoven electronics and saxophone reverberation which are gripping, as well as a later interlude where Shipp's chiming pattern merges with buzzes and beeps in a similar cadence to marvelous effect. On the mysterious "Blurred And Sewn," just before the finish Butcher immediately echoes a romantic flourish from Shipp, so quick it represents a combination of muscle memory and faster-than-thought synapse sparkings in one of those delicious instances which makes the constant listening and recalibration which underlies all audible to everyone.

All three players of the three deploy their vocabularies for surprising outcomes, whether relentlessly driving as in the noisy crescendo in "Re(as)semble" or airy and expansive as in the etiolated soundscape of "Links On Canvas," which includes one notable moment where Butcher's soprano resembles something between a cello and a mouth organ in a segment of sustained lyricism. "Trippy Revelation" closes with Shipp almost tuneful, his melody lapped by waves of electronic surf. After all that, the album ends on a satisfying juxtaposition which might almost meet stereotypical expectations, as a series of valedictory piano chords are subverted by an uncompromising blend of saxophone whistle and scratchy electronic ticking.

It's a fascinating meeting which draws everyone away from their normal centers of gravity, only to find a fertile common orbit.

Track Listing

Stitched Equivalence; Blurred And Sewn; Trippy Revelation; Off Kilter; Re(as)semble; Links On Canvas; Tastes Of Song; Tapping Signs.


John Butcher: saxophone; Thomas Lehn: synthesizer; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Album information

Title: The Clawed Stone | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Rogue Art

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