Spool/Field SPF 303

Unsounds u04

Like the fabled jazz gunslingers of the 1960s — saxophonist Sonny Stitt comes most readily to mind — free music practitioners have become inured to travelling — regularly moving from town to town and country to country to play their music. Unlike those 1960s jazz sharpshooters, who roamed like solitary quick draw artists in the Old West, rounding up a posse of backing musicians to support them in taming the music when they arrived in a location, free improvisers are more syndicalist. Rather than seeing themselves as a single playing with a group of deputized accomplices, they integrate themselves into the posse to produce group music. That’s the case with British saxophonist John Butcher — a well-known itinerant musician — on these CDs. THERMAL finds him trading licks with Andy Moor, guitarist for Dutch anarcho punks the Ex, and German synthesizer virtuoso Thomas Lehn. EQUATION hooks up Butcher with two Torontonians, percussionist Tomasz Krakowiak and Mike Hansen, who is also a visual artist, manipulating an old-fashioned, school-issue record player. Both CDs not only pinpoint Butcher’s versatility in different situations, but also highlight new performers adding their skills to the ongoing improv gestalt. This many years down the road, of course, the British reedist usually offers a distinctive outlay of notes and tones, which is why it’s so interesting to hear him with diverse partners. Alive with the sort of sonic melding which leaves the listener wondering who exactly played what, Butcher appears to be using more outlandish extended techniques. That means that split tones, whistles, circular breathing, flattement, tongue slaps and key pops are just the beginning of his output. His irregular vibrations often make it seem like he’s playing a duet with himself as frequently as unconnected horn parts appear for a second and then vanish. Also notable is Hansen’s choice of the prosaic record player, rather than the sleek, techno turntable as his instrument of choice. More than a contrast in terminology, his seasoned, school-issue machines seem to come with a layer of classroom dirt that when amplifies through the system create a static-pitted continuum beneath Butcher’s improvisations, the way Keith Rowe’s lap guitar drones do in AMM’s sessions. At times, in fact, it appears as if Hansen’s manipulating the stylus on the turntable itself to get original sounds. Seldom does he indulge in hip-hop LP scratching, and only then as a rhythmic counterpoint to some of Butcher’s steady multiphonics He does play records every so often however. On the fifth part of the first suite, for example, playing an LP backwards so its output turns to a sort of maniacal laughter, or sliding one section of an LP at what could be 78 rpm, bisecting Butcher’s trilling multiphonics that soon turn to speedy tongue slaps and irregularly vibrated, elongated pure reed tones. Later the saxist introduces a complete set of circular breathing exercises, moving up the scale as he spews out one whole note after another. Elsewhere, seconds of recorded classical music apparently played at the wrong speed for seconds brings out a burst of spetrofluctuation from Butcher’s horn that soon turn into wavering tones. At another point the recorded phrase “Keep goin’ baby” is repeated a couple of times following a Butcher showcase. He had been breathing sounds through nose and diaphragm, mixing in tongue slaps and honking echoes plus granulated spit tones. Ground-down dirt and mechanized static from a record player can aurally redefine itself as a sort of electronic pulse that appears in-and-out of hearing range. Or at least it seems this way on the final track. Here the reedist lets loose with prolonged reed kisses, hisses air through his body tube without moving the keys and, closely miked, seems to have invested as much in nose as mouth breathing. Finally after the expelled sound increase in intensity and depth, he frees it from amplified turntable rumble and vanishes into silence. Before this happens there has been a hint of scratched percussion timbres from Krakowiak’s kit. That hint, unfortunately is the session’s one deficiency. By accident or design the percussion is mostly lost within the mix. There are times as on the penultimate track when it appears as if Krakowiak’s about to drape himself over different sound sources à la the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s John Stevens, but that impulse vanishes as quickly as it appears. Otherwise some miscellaneous crackles, crinkles and crumbles can be ascribed to him. There are point when the sound of a drum stick being dragged across a cymbal — an old improv trick — can be heard; as can a splatter of quick percussion taps; a single drum roll and the appearance of a bell-like tones and syncopated rattles elsewhere. Perhaps too it’s he who appears to be stroking a balloon for new textures as well. But his other contributions are absent or unheard. Recorded in Amsterdam, the other CD avoids this percussion conundrum altogether by not employing a stick man. Yet Lehn produces enough keyboard pressure and Moor — who comes from rock music — creates enough driving bass notes on his six-string to almost replicate a drum beat. This rhythm is apparent on “Broken Fighter Plane” where the synthesizer provides the ostinato on which Butcher’s bird-like chirps and vibrato rest. By the time the tempo has worked its way up to presto, Butcher is wriggling out elongated whole tones, Lehn is crashing out freight-train powered chords that are half electric piano and half drum set, while Moor is firing focused guitar treatments into the stratosphere. Earlier “Once Gravity Strikes for Real” appears to have guitar lines that escaped from “Purple Haze”, while Lehn’s output approximates that of a video game soundtrack. Among these oscillating synthesizer waves and later rhythmic bass line from Moor, the reedist amplifies his aviary chirps so that the flock’s volume is intense enough to compete with the mechanized drone and sine wave from Lehn. Real musique concrète, “Teeth” begins with the grating clamor of what sounds like all the instruments being pushed across the studio floor. Soon afterwards, Lehn seems to lean into his keyboard forearm first as the guitarist creates some slack key picking. Butcher’s lofty sax tones take on pinched ney or musette qualities. Then after what appears to be the recording of card shuffling, Moor replicates a bass string emphasized psychedelic freak-out solo, followed by breakneck percussion that make one think Lehn created it on plastic milk cartons. Finally, the machinery rumble and what could be the sound of a bow raking the guitar strings subsides as Butcher’s soprano soars over the synth vibrations. Then there’s “Pan Asian Love Buds” — who comes up with these titles? — where Butcher’s sweet legato tone soon turns gritty as he meets mirrored faux Hawaiian guitar lines from Moor. As the plectrumist begins pounding and emphasizing certain strings, Butcher uses sibilant overblowing to amplify his tone. When the six-string output gets even speedier, he triple tongues and introduces mouth percussion. Not that everything here is shrill and clamorous. On “Imperfect Vehicle” — is that a jokey or a descriptive title? — Butcher expels a stream of circular breathes that only swell in volume as Moor’s unvarying strumming dissolves into spiky sound shards. Soaring and peeping, the reedist maintains his clear tone even as the synthesizer output reaches a crescendo. EuroImprov animal-like clawing sounds are front and centre on “Gongs not Bombs”. But Lehn soon alters those scrapes to produce drum machine-like pulses, perfect accompaniment to the saxist’s key clicks and tongue slaps that resolve themselves into a jerky, Morse code replication . Meanwhile Moor’s wavering plucks seem to come from purposely-loosened guitar strings. Fourteen tracks of inventive interaction, THERMAL offers one example of how recently acquainted musical gunslingers tackle improvisation. The two suites on EQUATION offer another scenario in the new sheriff and posse mode. Both are worth your scrutiny. — Ken Waxman Track Listing: Equation: Noise Temperature Suite: 1. Part 1 1. Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 Standing Wave Suite: 6. Part 1 7. Part 2 8. Part 3 9. Part 4 Personnel: Equation: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones); Mike Hansen (record player); Tomasz Krakowiak (percussion) Track Listing: Thermal: 1. Thermal 2. Once Gravity Strikes for Real 3. Miss Universal Happiness 4. Weak Alarm 5. Tongue 6. Broken Fighter Plane 7. Pan Asian Love Buds 8. Gongs not Bombs 9. Cat Funeral 10. Quarry Traffic 11. Imperfect Vehicle 12. Graphite 13. Teeth 14. Thomas Builds a Shelter Personnel: Thermal: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones); Andy Moor (guitar); Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer)