Sten Sandell Trio + John Butcher

Strokes
Clean Feed CF 082

A memorable live meeting between advanced British reedist John Butcher and the Scandinavian trio of Swedish pianist Sten Sandell, Strokes confirms that adding insightful improvising to an already established aggregation can make a good thing even better.

When Butcher’s tenor and soprano saxophone timbres extended with amplification and feedback are positioned among the shape-shifting textures from Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Johan Berthling, another Swede – in addition to Sandell’s electronics and whistling trills – the results layer additional dabs of musical color onto a compelling canvas.

Here two major improvisations of nearly 30 minutes each, subdivide into several themes and variations which sluice from nearly inaudible string rubbing and key stopping to strident reed multiphonics and triggered staccato electronic oscillations. Tellingly, Nilssen-Love is unobtrusive, limiting his contributions to steel drum-like vibrations, raindrop light rim shots, mallet-directed drum top pats and the occasional bell pealing. Similarly self-effacing Berthling’s plucking only becomes assertive when needed to fuse the pianist’s soundboard-rattling, circular modal fantasias and the saxophonist’s sometime glottal and abstract trills.

In the foreground Butcher’s tenor flutter and double-tongues, with expressive amplification occasionally twinning the pitches. On soprano, overblown flute-like passages evolve into widely spaced circular breathed smears. In contrast, when he isn’t stopping or striking his instrument’s internal strings, Sandell utilizes all parts of the keyboard. High frequency tremolo tinkles are promptly followed by pedal-pressured near boogie-woogie strokes and kinetic key pounding.

Swirling and transformative, these different Strokes challenge Northern Europeans’ reputation for reserve.

— Ken Waxman

For Whole Note Vol. 13 #1