JOHN BUTCHER & JOHN EDWARDS

Optic
Emanem 4089

Never one to shy away from a challenge, British saxophonist John Butcher has plunged into a farrago of collaborations during his career, in groups ranging from duos to biggish bands.

Recently he’s recorded two fine improvisations with percussionists — American Gino Robair and Canadian Dylan van der Schyff. So, perhaps in the spirit of English fair play, this admirable CD was recorded at two concerts with a fellow Brit, bassist John Edwards. The result spotlights the reedist’s improv strategies, as well as the bassist’s response to them.

Not that this should be regarded as a sax plus one session. Edwards, whose experience encompasses work with other modern saxmen like Paul Dunmall, Tony Bevan and Evan Parker, confidently holds his own with Butcher. You can’t build a skyscraper after all, if the foundation isn’t solid.

Centrepiece of the CD appears to be “Cocktail Bar”, a 27-minute performance recorded in Brussels. Obviously the length and space gives the saxman plenty of scope for his tools — and tricks — of the trade.

Beginning with a protracted, glottal trill that is as distinctively his as similar tones announce Parker’s sax alchemy, Butcher’s raucous, staccato lines appear to rattle the bass’s body as much as his saxophone’s. As Edwards plucks out a response, the saxophonist generates circularly breathed notes that echo and divide themselves infinitesimally. Soon growls and tongue slaps meet Edwards’ arco runs and multiple string whacks, produced with the force laborers bring to pounding in circus tent poles.

Seizing the initiative, the bassist creates the ghoulish sound of a door slowly creaking open in a haunted house, causing Butcher to cheerfully triple tongue the aural creation of a flock of birds, rather than the bat cries you would expect. Improvisations continue moving horizontally as tweeting mouthpiece tones give way to a few bars of legato as Edwards manhandles new accents and patterns up and down his strings. Blithely squealing sopranissimo with a pitch Maynard Ferguson gets at the top of his trumpet’s range, Butcher then somehow manage replicate the sound of wire brushes on a snare drum.

Dedicated plucks add to this resonant episode, with constant string buzzing providing an elongated tone. Butcher introduces reed kisses with such ardor that it seems as if he may pull the wood up into his windpipe. Elongated slurs succeed this, with Edwards pulling similar sonics from his strings. The ending mates a spacious vibrato with air-raid siren style drones

That’s another key to this performance. Not only does Butcher’s technique allow him to use overtones to create the illusion of playing more than one sax at a time, but Edwards’ skill mates his output so closely to the saxman’s, that occasionally they seems to be playing the same instrument.

Five tracks recorded the next year in Barcelona offer variations on the first performance, with the two even more expansive after a year’s growth. On “Plate XI”, for instance, Butcher’s reed whistles appear so sonorous that you could swear the sound of a toilet flushing is heard. Edwards maintains his shifting pulse and even slaps his bass à la Pops Foster at one point. Throughout, Butcher’s wiggling, circular trills move from high-pitched to near soundlessness, including a point at which his reed squeals approximate the sound a brassman gets from merely blowing into his mouthpiece. As the bassist strings out low-level cadenzas, his creation and the saxman’s cricket-like chirps get thinner, finally fading away with reverberations as if they had vanished down a mouse hole.

Itemizing the woody rasps, split tones and multiphonics that Butcher creates — and the filigree of arco or pizzicato tones which Edwards sews into a bolster on which to display them — would be pointless. Needless to say, the height of inventiveness is maintained throughout both performances. One would also suppose that the title is apt, as it suggests the listener create mind pictures while listening to the disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Cocktail bar 2. Panel 5 3. Grottes 1 4. Plate XI 5. Interior II

Personnel: John Butcher (soprano and tenor saxophones); John Edwards (bass)