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Exploring the limits of living jazz: John Butcher

Chris Searle on News from the Shed, The Scenic Route and Fixations (14)

John Butcher
News from the Shed (Emanem 4121)
The Scenic Route (Emanem 4029)
Fixations (14) (Emanem 4045)

THE saxophonist John Butcher was born in Brighton in 1954 and took piano lessons at school, but only started playing saxophone when he was studying at Surrey University with ambitions to become a physicist.

He played avant rock as keyboardist with the band Habilus and pursued his PhD, but it was hearing jazz musicians like John Surman, Stan Tracey and Louis Moholo-Moholo that turned him towards free improvisation, and he began to take part in the monthly sessions organised by the Workers Music Association at its Notting Hill venue.

The 1980s began an intense period of musical development for Butcher.

In 1983 he formed a regular trio with violinist Phil Durrant and guitarist John Russell, while also performing with some the leading figures of the British improvised music scene, including Elton Dean, a soprano saxophone quartet with Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill and Trevor Watts and a duo with Sheffield guitarist Derek Bailey, with whom he made three CDs.

In 1989 the Butcher/Durrant/Russell Trio was augmented by the German drummer Paul Lovens and the Innsbruck-born trombonist Radu Malfatti to record the album News from the Shed.

Both newcomers were well-known to British improvising musicians — Malfatti had lived in London and Holland since the early 1970s, playing with pioneers like Chris McGregor, Parker, Bailey and Paul Rutherford and the Aachen-born Lovens was (and still is) a mainstay of the longstanding trio with Parker and Alex von Schlippenbach.

The 14 relatively short tracks on the album seethe with life and creative fire from the very first drum-crashing sounds, mixed with Durrant’s sharp-edged electronics and Butcher’s eerie soprano sax blowing as if the dogs are loose.

Russell’s chirping guitar strings herald the track called The Gabdash, with Malfatti howling beside him, while Malfatti’s long notes and Lovens’s clicking drums are featured on the almost bluesy Reading the River.

Lovens sounds frantic on Kickshaws and nothing at all stops on Everything Stops for Tea as Butcher’s spectral soprano whines out and Russell’s single notes seem to be holding a symphony.

Sticks and Stones is a friendly enough combat between comrades — an astonishing amalgam of timbres, while on Whisstrionics breath mixes with lightly-tapped percussion and Butcher’s reticent horn to create a unique flux of sound.

Nine years later the Butcher/Durrant/Russell trio were recorded at two performances — one at the Red Rose near Finsbury Park, London, and the other at the Andre Malraux Cultural Centre in Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy in France.

The Red Rose track Climate Change, 22 minutes long, is the final track on the album of these sessions, The Scenic Route, with three bold mountaineers crossing a treacherous Alpine crevasse on the way up Mont Blanc as the album’s sleeve photograph — quite an allusion to the audacity of the music.

The track’s ominous beginning with Butcher’s wailing tenor and Durrant’s flickering violin presages a disquieting story to be told — you can imagine the Red Rose listeners taking in every narrative note, in every sound so often close to quietude.

As for the French tracks, the hornsound of Butcher at the outset of Heavy Merge is like no other saxophonist, underscored by Russell’s spiky fretwork of sound. In Belayed his tenor sound is more like the guffawing of brass and in Buffet Balls violin and saxophone sound like two ecstatic birds, another extraordinary amalgam of sound.

In the sleeve note to Fixations (14), his solo album of live recordings between 1997 and 2000 in the US, Brussels, Spain and London, Butcher wrote that “it seems to be that when you’re alone you really learn the weight of your ingredients.” His is so much a sound within a collective setting that the isolation of his very particular elements comes as almost a shock.

In Woodland Draft, recorded in Milwaukee, his soprano drifts in and out of self-made melodies, resonant with spontaneous beauty. The vibrato effects of his tenor on the Chicago tracks, particularly Second Bottle, create a strange intensity and a simultaneous grunt and whistle which are powerfully disconcerting, and in Third Bottle it is as if a giant fly has flown out of the midriff of your stereo.

One of the San Francisco tracks is called Nearly Art. Butcher’s virtuosity is certainly that, but it radiates a compelling and daring beauty too, exploring the edges and limits of the sounds of breath, the force which keeps us alive and connecting.


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