June 7, 2001
JOHN BUTCHER/ALEX DÖRNER/XAVIER CHARLES
The Contest of Pleasures
Potlatch P 201
One of the difficulties in recording improvised music, as some practitioners have pointed out, is that you're making a permanent record (sic) of something that existed only in the moment. Furthermore, when the metaphoric snapshot which is a CD is released, it only reproduces the sound of the instruments, not the shape or acoustical properties of the room in which the recording takes place. What's more, a truism derived from jazz notes that music, which impresses a live audience often, loses its impressive immediacy when pressed onto that small circular disc.
The three musicians and one sound engineer who produced and preserved the performance on this nearly 53-minute CD have tried to deal with these challenges. Unfortunately, it would seem that this first time meeting of these exceptional improvisers in the 12th century Chapelle Saint-Jean in Mulhouse, France in the summer of 2000, ended up confirming rather than negating these concepts.
While it would seem that the weathered stone walls of the chapel gave German trumpeter Axel Dörner, British saxophonist John Butcher and French clarinetist Xavier Charles the chance to meld their sound into a sort of ethereal choir of muted pitches, that is where it seems to stay. Uniting in a democratic coalition shouldn't mean that individuality of expression is lost. But, except for the odd distinct note or tone, that is what seems to have happened here. There is some exceptional melded playing throughout, but with such a cast of characters what else would you expect?
Dörner, who has worked with such musicians as trombonist George Lewis and drummer Paul Lovens and in aggregations like Fred Van Hove's 't Nonet and The London Jazz Composers Orchestra is widely credited with creating a new future for the trumpet. Butcher, probably the only British improv saxophonist good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Evan Parker, has played with Dörner in other circumstances, as well as with numberless other top improvisers. Charles not only toils as an improvising clarinetist, but also as an electric bassist and noise maker with bands like Silent Block, and furthermore has immersed himself in electronics.
However most of the improvisations on this disc seem to be circling onto themselves. Butcher contributes multiphonic tones, Charles ranges between a chirping upper register and snatches of chalumeau, while Dörner expels tiny, floating tones. Completely selfless, except for the odd key click or throaty growl, you often can't tell which sound comes from which instrument. As one, the three spend many minutes muting themselves to try to arrive at near stillness. Then, suddenly, they combine for an ear wrenching ascending timbre that appears to expand in volume for many minutes, before subsiding again into near silence.
Charting the slow moving circumference fascinates when you hear it on the first track. Yet, as the disc continues, it appears that that's all that was decided in this first meeting. At times, in fact, you feel that potential tunes or melodies have been negated just to preserve the intertwined pitches. Listening to each track separately could be more gratifying, to try to understand how the three collectively create. But since each improvisation seems to pose and solve the same equation that too may be ultimately limiting.
In the past, bands like AMM has proven that much can be done with such minimalist conceptions. In fact, longtime followers of any of the three musicians and this sort of bloodless instant composition may rank the disc higher.
But for most, it would seem that while the contest has been properly delineated, the pleasure has been denied.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Pamplemousse 2. Quetesch 3. Loganberry 4. Greenengage 5. Kumquat
Personnel: Alex Dörner (trumpet); Xavier Charles (clarinet); John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones)