BUTCHER/MASASAOKA/ROBAIR

Guerrilla Mosaics
482 Music 482-1013

A first-time collaboration between a well-travelled British saxophonist and two Californians proves that improvisational cohesiveness and empathy are often little affected by geographic distance and instrumental suitability.

While London-based reedman John Butcher’s instruments — soprano and tenor saxophone — are often seen as germane to improv as freedom, the others’ choices are a bit less common. Bay area percussionist Gino Robair also works out on such unusual noisemakers as the faux dax, bowed metal, and motors — all late 20th century inventions. Meanwhile Brooklyn-based Miya Masaoka, plays not only one of the most traditional of Japanese instruments — the 21-string koto — but its 21st century cousin, the laser koto, with MIDI-triggering. This allows her to often double and triple the sound she produces.

Butcher and Robair have played together as a duo, most notably on the limited edition LIVERPOOL (BLUECOAT) CONCERT, recorded a few months before this June 2000 date. Meanwhile, the kotoist, who was originally trained as a pianist, has adopted her ancient instrument to work with the likes of experimenters like trombonist George Lewis, saxist Larry Ochs and jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille.

Using technology created for her at STEIM in Amsterdam and San Francisco, Masaoka amplifies the koto’s range with sounds that are reminiscent of an orchestral harp, a bottleneck blues guitar and a jazz double bass. Mixed with Robair’s junk percussion and Butcher’s duck quacks and aviary whistles, sometimes it seems as if the session is taking place in a location midway between the Imperial Court and a chicken coop.

Masaoka’s brawny plucking means that on tunes like “Glyph” she can use her lowest strings to perform as if bassist Ray Brown segued into some genteel gagaku court music, only to reverse herself by the end with clawhammer finger picking more reminiscent of the Appalachians then Mount Fuji. While all this happens, Robair strokes metal with a violin bow, while Butcher appears to be blowing his sax underwater through a snorkel. At the end the saxman’s well-articulated gritty horks are succeeded by high-pitched long-lined cadences.

The mixture of primitivism and modernity exemplified by the trio is given more play on “Recept”, where Robair’s irregular blows on his varied percussion and metals are matched with a highly mechanized yawning cartoon monster growls, probably from Masaoka’s laser treatments, while the saxophonist showcases mini-circular breathing, creating a constant underlying drone. Elsewhere, it seems that Masaoka’s ability to manipulate the moveable bridge of the instrument to change the length of the vibrating strings to produce otherworldly sounds, includes radio wave-like static that is by design neither oriental or occidental. Cohesive tongue slaps and prolonged internal reed dialogues radiating chameleon-like from Butcher’s reed mastery show that he isn’t limited to a formal Euro improvisation either.

All of this dexterity comes together on “Ariation”, the final and longest tune. Here Butcher’s wiggling, rolling, foghorn arpeggios fervidly build in intensity as the percussionist thumps his drums, rings bells, crashes hand cymbals together and appears to vibrate his faux dax for additional notes. Throughout, the koto’s plucks match his facility as the saxophonist’s key pops balance heavy electronic strums or fingerpicking guitar patterns.

A fine effort by all concerned.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Lish 2. Ouzel 3. The dodge 4. A wing 5. Glyph 6. Dipper 7. Recept 8. Cae 9. Mosaic 10. Covert 11. Sloots 12. Ariation

Personnel: John Butcher (soprano and tenor saxophones); Miya Masaoka (21-string koto and laser koto); Gino Robair (percussion, faux dax, bowed metal, and motors)