The First Two Gigs

Good things often come in small packages.

A vest pocket version of the octet/nonet Ensemble, British pianist Chris Burn has been leading on-and-off since 1984, this quartet on its maiden voyages seems more focused than the larger group, perhaps because each of the musicians has to assert himself even more in a more compact situation.

Recorded in two different London clubs in sessions four months apart, to be honest, the performances here don’t sound at all like that of four musicians groping towards a common modus operandi. Perhaps it’s because each has some sort of playing experience with at least one of the others.

John Butcher, acknowledged as one of improv’s paramount saxophone explorers, has been associated with Burn and Ensemble since the late 1970s. Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies is another member of Ensemble and has recorded with the saxophonist on other occasions. And John Edwards may be the busiest free music bassist in London, having recorded with the likes of pianist Veryan Weston and saxophonist Evan Parker as well as Butcher among many others.

Thus all that really appears to be needed in these six longish tracks that run from 6½ minutes to a little more than 16 minutes is for the musicians to find a comfortable place, unpack their axes start playing. United in their singularity, each seems to pride himself on producing the most unusual and hithertofore unheard sounds from his instrument.

Not that novelty for the sake of novelty is being indulged. Instead, to mix a metaphor, the four see (hear?) their instruments as blank canvases on which they can project any innovative and fresh sound they want, regardless of how the instrument is supposed to sound. Identifying the source of one tone or another then becomes the listener’s challenge, with some easier to classify than others.

Sometimes, as on “The Remove”, Butcher will produce enough echo himself to make it appear that he’s improvising in a hollow cistern or long tunnel, while “Souvenir de Docteur” begins with what sounds like Edwards sawing his bass in half. In the same piece Burn appears to be playing on prepared piano strings, unlike the misnamed “Low Standard” — it isn’t — where you wonder whether the percussive tones arise from the pianist or the harpist.

Elsewhere, as on “High Standard”, Butcher supplants his aviary whistles and chicken clucks with a session of billowing trills, then uses circular breathing to hold one note and its resulting overtones for a protracted period as the string section bows and wiggles around it.

Summing up all that comes before and goes afterwards, “Scharlachglut”, the longest track, has time to develop from a low-key interlude to a louder, speedier mid section before fading to silence. As it develops, metallic scratches give way to what appear to be someone — perhaps Davies — seemingly scrubbing clothes on a washboard. For luck, or just color, Edwards begins to knock on the wood of his bass, while the clank of foreign objects announce that the piano has been prepared for a percussion function. Introducing soprano reed quacks, the saxophonist joins Burn in duet, while something that resembles the sound of grain being rolled around on the table enliven the keystrokes. With Butcher alternating among vibrato-reed kisses, key pops and subterranean tongue flutters, Edwards plucks a short counter melody.

Now that Burn and Co. have put together an Ensemble that’s compact enough to be cost-effective for notoriously cash-strapped avant music presenters, hopefully the four will play many more than these first two gigs. That way we can hear many more remarkable CDs like this one.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Low Standard 2. High Standard 3. The Remove 4. Scharlachglut 5. Russelliana 6. Souvenir de Docteur

Personnel: John Butcher (soprano and tenor saxophones); Chris Burn (piano and percussion); Rhodri Davies (harp); John Edwards (bass)