20090828

John Butcher Group, somethingtobesaid [Weight of Wax, 2009]

Phenomenal electro-acoustic improvised music from this octet of master musicians assembled by John Butcher. Sonic textures are suggested by playback of pre-recorded sounds (fragments of speech from an old answering machine, sounded wine glasses) and passed through changing small sub-groups as directed by Butcher. The first track (the first indexed section of a single piece in various parts) is a great example of these structuring elements at work. The piece starts with close interval beating midrange tones, presumably the wine glasses, soon joined by various instruments easing in with matching sounds, adding to the slowly flowing tones. Brief solos, more active yet still subdued flurries of sound -- the sizzle of wind ripping through saliva as it escapes a saxophone mouthpiece -- bubble up out of this calmly undulating sea. Muffled speech samples (the answering machine) make a brief appearance, setting the tone for these minor eruptions: bumpier texture but still static sound. Bowed styrofoam again disrupts the smooth texture, calling the group to action -- critical mass has been reached. But the group flurries quickly settle into string harmonics accompanied by piano plunks, both subtly mimicked and matched by electronics. It becomes clear we are in stasis, and it makes no sense to follow the particulars of the flow. The slowly shifting texture continues to be passed around the group, morphing as different instruments sustain it. We are dwelling in a single space, a good space. Non-developmental alternation between sustained sounds and eruptions of rougher texture continue until a slight ebb in energy cues the end of the piece. There is an airy electronic hiss, similar to the momentary saxophone solo early in the piece, followed by a quick fade to silence.

So far the music has followed in the tradition of Butcher's playing with groups like Polwechsel -- controlled playing creating a group texture without clear individual voices or instrumental sounds. It is interesting to note that the second half of the first track was actually an open improvisation by Burn, Cooper, Lehn, and Linson, though they functioned as a tightly unified organism, and seamlessly continued the tone set by the composed music for octet. While the first track epitomizes the best of the textural playing on this disc, the second track contains the meatiest musical movement. The track opens with the sound of a dot matrix printer, and a thick instrumental texture quickly builds around it with more intensity than has yet been heard on this disc. It's dark ambient improvised noise reminding me of AMM's heavy textures. I am thrilled to hear the crackle of vinyl coming out of my speakers, intuitively coming from the playback medium, but of course actually from dieb 13's live turntable performance. But then, about 3 minutes in, a very twisty, skronky horn line leaps out -- an unashamed saxophone. No more questions about which instrument is making which sound. This outburst silences the rest of the group, and various players rejoin the action in a sparser European Free Improv (post-free jazz) mode of operation, appropriately enough as the three lead players were all operating during the twilight (if not the heyday) of that movement (begun by John Stevens and Derek Bailey, both now deceased). There's a bit of piano, but mostly it's Butcher on tenor sax, and John Edwards on double bass -- manly double bass, the kind of playing at which Edwards excels -- buzzing arco punctuated with hard percussive hits on the strings -- fast and aggressive. Butcher is working with the complex, constantly shifting multiphonics for which he is well known. After three minutes of this, the extended saxophone sounds give way to scales, then lines, now pushing toward free jazz -- unabashedly even more "musical" than EFI. Edwards starts stretching out into arco drones, and the duo fades away. An awesome duo from two masters of genre.

A little more than a year ago, in June 2008, I had the opportunity to see Butcher lead sfSound in what was perhaps a prototype for this group composition. Paralleling this Butcher/Edwards duo, the highlight of that concert was an extended duo of Butcher and Gino Robair. It's evidently a very effective approach to group improv structure, breaking the group down into the small groupings with which improvisers are most familiar, especially into duos and trios with years of playing experience. Robair and Butcher especially shine together. Their recordings together are the highlights of each of their discographies. Unfortunately, this duo doesn't have its moment on this album. The lack is only felt, however, if one is already familiar with the extraordinary possibilities. This album sounds great as it is, and there are plenty of other albums with which to revel in the Butcher/Robair genius.

These first two tracks are the finest moments on a very fine disc, and the other best sections follow similar forms. #3 and #9 are both more textural pieces, #3 notably being a very tight piece, structured by notated pitches and pre-recorded wine glasses, which greatly aids its efficacy in heaping up mounds of musical doom. #5 is another free instrumental piece, mostly consisting of a double bass/guzheng duo exploring the similarities of these two large stringed instruments. Edwards again effortlessly moving through his impressive repertoire of techniques, matched by Clare Cooper in a conversational sort of duo. The players stay united in their wide-ranging sounds, whether they be traditional bass sounds, or unexpectedly percussive and trashy extended sounds. The most sublime moment occurs about 4 minutes in, when a minor frenzy cuts to silence, the bass locks into a contrastingly slow and stark beat, with even sparser guzheng noise punctuations. Soon the speech samples return, and the saxophone joins in, serving as the voice's partner in a double duo. Then quickly the piano enters, establishing a brief EFI trio (sax/bass/piano), but having forced the saxophone into interaction with the live musicians, it exits as quickly as it entered, relinquishing its place once again to the guzheng.

John Edwards emerges from the group as a powerful voice and guiding force, but for the most part the octet functions as a unit, very well-balanced in its constantly shifting groupings and sounds. John Butcher deserves a lot of credit for keeping the music under control, as do the seven other very tasteful players. Butcher wrote of his concern in composing this piece, "...as I chip away at, and redirect, the individual freedoms and responsibilities of improvisation, can I replace them with anything as worthwhile?" This is, of course, the most important question in composing for improvisers. In regulating a group of potentially unwieldy size, and producing wonderful music, Butcher has succeeded.

somethingtobesaid is indeed a very successful project. It's rare to hear a large group of improvising musicians, and rarer still to enjoy it. Congratulations to John Butcher and Group for pulling it off wonderfully. Hopefully we'll hear from them again, but economic realities sadly leave that doubtful.

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