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Trans-European improv, CLEARINGS showcases a meeting of minds among musicians from three different countries with three distinct approaches to free music. Resulting in a substantial program of melding timbres, the CD confirms that only in a liberated musical situation like this could disparate styles meld.

As a matter of fact, if there was ever a complete misnomer, then it’s the title of the second track, “Bumpy Ride”. Here and elsewhere, the distinctive smeary trills of Britain’s John Butcher morph into wiggling irregular vibrations and join the speedy spiccato bowing of Germany’s Christoph Irmer and the dissonant, uneven note clusters of Spain’s Agustí Fernández sans bumps.

Both with classical training, pianist Fernández and violinist Irmer have recorded together before, while Irmer has also played with American bassist Dominic Duval and two of the pianist’s collaborators German bassist Peter Kowald and American flautist Jane Rigler. Fernández’s partners have ranged from American bassist William Parker to British reedist Evan Parker. Butcher who is universally acknowledged as the most important sax explorer since Parker, seems to have played with nearly everyone in improvised music from American drummer Gerry Hemingway to German synthesizer whiz Thomas Lehn.

There are no electronics in use on this session that took place in the same Hamburg studio where the Beatles recorded as Tony Sheridan’s sidemen in 1961, nor do the techniques of pop ever interfere. Instead instant compositions like “Fire Stack” are featured. Here reed key pops, tongue slaps and colored air mix it up with ponticello bowing and the literal scratching of the fiddle’s wood. Meanwhile Fernández forages in the piano innards, eventually encouraging legato glissandos to turn into straightforward harmonics — which brings forth sibilant duck-like quacks from Butcher.

Although there are times throughout when the two traditional instruments seem headed towards a formal recital stance, extended saxophone technique gets them back into the free music arena.

Among the processes on offer are Fernández slapping and stopping the action of the piano strings, battering the keys with dynamic pressure, sounding the occasional bent note and leaping hopscotch-like over the keyboard. Irmer laterally saws away at his strings so that the tone begins to resemble that of a whining human voice. And he also creates elongated grating string pitches to accompany repeated piano arpeggios or irregularly pitched penny whistle vibrations from Butcher. As well as creating tiny, multi-note bird tweets from his soprano, the reedist at points also smears and snorts tenor sax lines.

“Siege” is a summation of many of these patterns, featuring the three polyphonically sounding out three separate but complementary lines. Measured violin harmonies, rumbling, bass piano lines and atmospheric horn honks combine with a minimum of friction.

Perhaps the summation of the trio’s work comes on the aptly-named, longest track, “Prophecy”. As Butcher’s blaring spetrofluctuation, key pops and extended grainy slurs meet Fernández’s syncopated tremolos and high frequency chording and Irmer’s staccato fiddle lines that build makes the prophecy of a Pan-European music a reality.

At least in that neck of the improv woods, that prophecy seems to have been realized.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Entrance 2 Bumpy Ride 3. Owl of Minerva 4. Mirror images 5. Siege 6. Some time ago 7. Crystal Cube 8. Traps of Silence 9. Haunted Place 10. Fire Stack 11. Prophecy 12. Fizzy Drive 13. Farewell

Personnel: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones); Agustí Fernández (piano); Christoph Irmer (violin)