JOHN BUTCHER/GINO ROBAIR

New Oakland Burr
Ratascan BRD 051

PAAL NILSSEN LOVE/MATS GUSTAFSSON
I Love It When You Snore
Smalltown Supersound STS 063 CD

Stripping down to essentials, intrepid improvisers find solos and duos present unvarnished sounds with the fewest possible obstructions.

Especially popular are discs that match a single reedist with a single percussionist to see what sparks fly. Participants in these two short CDs recorded around the same time have frequently been involved in similar situations. While all four have the scope to display outstanding, extended techniques, nowhere is there a feeling that these aren’t just new notches in the players’ belt. They may be impressive to newbies, but they’re not near any of the player’s highest standard.

British saxophonist John Butcher and Bay-area percussionist Gino Robair score higher, but only because their instrumental range is wider. Butcher plays tenor and soprano saxophones, either acoustically or through amplified feedback, while Robair expresses himself on cymbals, toy reed, styrofoam, faux dax, ebow snare and motors. Still the varied textures they can bring to the performance are dissipated over 16 [!] tracks on the little more than 40-minute CD.

Clocking in at 32 minutes, the other session shoehorns seven tracks performed by Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love onto the disc. Throughout, the pattern seems to be the saxist expelling massive sprays of buzzing, reed-biting mouth percussion, heavy on the vocalized vibrato as the drummer responds with cross sticking bounces and rolls in a variety of tempos.

Gustafsson, whose international reputation includes membership in Barry Guy’s New Orchestra and a partnership in different combos with American saxist Ken Vandermark, wastes no time showcasing his collection of intense tongue slaps, growling mouth percussion, glottal tongue stops and intense overblowing. Often his grunting effort is such that it appears as if he’s trying to resolve an intestinal blockage as he plays.

Meanwhile Nilssen-Love, who has backed a clutch of reedists including Butcher and Vandermark, gives as good as he gets.

His irregular patterning includes such extensions as focused cymbal or triangle pops, cymbal scrapes, rim shots, concentrated snare pressure, sudden breaks into march tempo, resonating cymbal lines, a split-second excursion into montuno and single bell-like peals.

Typical of the duet is “Shake Off”, where Gustafsson’s split tone slurs into false registers lead to bubbling lip smacks, pops and key percussion. Nilssen-Love soon picks up the pace with ratamacues, matching the reedman honk for honk and snort for snort. Moving from march time with inverted sticking, he makes a rapprochement with the saxist’s splintering tone by the end.

Deplorably that description could apply to most of the other tunes as well. I LOVE IT WHEN YOU SNORE could have benefited from variations in time and tempo.

Persistent sameness weakens some of the tracks on NEW OAKLAND BURR, as does the feeling that a few of the shorter ones are little more than experiments in technique. “Slug Tag’ for instance, focus on a drumstick scratch on the cymbal that with waves of widened reed tones resolves itself as a variation on ear-splitting heavy metalism. “Tucking” is little more than one minute of sluicing tones from Robair’s styrofoam leavened by harmonic breaths from Butcher; and “Pudsey Surprise” could be 44 seconds of someone blowing through a comb and tissue paper.

Far more toothsome are tracks like “One side is with a pea, the other pealess” — who thinks of these titles? — and “Blagovest”. The first features what are evidentially Robair’s motor dragging on top of an inflexible surface, with Butcher’s tongue slaps, doits and tongue stops providing the percussion rhythm. Robair then counters with what sounds like a robotic Bronx cheer, if a Robot did that while electricity passes through its body. Finale is the reedist’s circular breathing, plus squalling buzzing whistles from somewhere.

“Blagovest” showcases those abrasive tissue paper timbres from Butcher that link with Robair producing more lacerating tones from his toy reed, faux dax or air filled cheeks. Soon the squeals and shrieks are so incessant and higher-pitched that you’re reminded of feeding time at the puppy mill. Taking the animal metaphor farther, Butcher seems to be pulling duck calls from his reed.

“Fid” finds Butcher — likely helped by electronics — creating double counterpoint with himself,. Two melodies from this single source are displayed on top of undulating drones from Robair’s percussion collection. With a cornucopia of multiphonics multiplying to fill every aural space, the reverberations that remain when the track end are like those you still hear after a heavy metal guitarist has switched off his amp after a blistering solo.

Still other improvisations are illustrations of their titles, as “Cajun Squeal” which matches Butcher’s concise trilled timbre with the squeaking of Robair’s dax — or is it a plastic toy? — and “Whine Model” that may use a sequencer to split a continuous feedback shrill so that it becomes louder and more rasping.

Again, many of these trompe d’oreille have been exhibited elsewhere.

Completists and committed followers of these men’s works, singly or together may rate the discs higher. From this perspective, however, both CDs offer up good, but not great work. The later can be found elsewhere.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Burr: 1. Throat rust 2. Poundering 3. Wrong and Home 4. Slug Tag 5. Tucking 6. Pudsey Surprise 7. Cajun Squeal 8. Whine Model 9. Fid 10. Snub 11. 20p Uncle 12. Peal 13. Blagovest 14. Vug 15. One side is with a pea, the other pealess 16. Louche

Personnel: Burr: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones plus amplified feedback); Gino Robair (cymbals, toy reed, styrofoam, faux dax, ebow snare, motors)

Track Listing: Snore: 1. I Love It 2. Come Lie Closer 3. Face Make 4. Lightning Bug 5. Shake Off 6. Snarcus Brutalis 7. When You Snore

Personnel: Snore: Mats Gustafsson (baritone saxophone); Paal Nilssen-Love (percussion)