John Butcher Group

Weight of Wax WOW 02

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble

The Moment’s Energy

ECM 2066

Now that a large portion of improvised music is deliberately moving further away from its swing-blues roots and into an accommodation with New music, a few far-sighted so-called classical festivals have made a place for improvisers. Tellingly, both these captivating CDs featuring ensembles performing large-scale compositions by significant British saxophonists, were commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. More importantly, neither work is a jazz-classical cameo, but expansive enough to allow the composers’ ideas to be figuratively painted on a larger canvas, using an extended sonic palate.

Although Evan Parker, who sticks to soprano saxophone on The Moment’s Energy, and John Butcher, who plays tenor and soprano saxophones plus samples on Somethingtobesaid, are probably the U.K.’s best-known Free Music saxophonists, the range and organization of the other instruments here highlights their differing approach to orchestral creativity. The Moment’s Energy, for instance, is an electro-acoustic exploration and to this end six electronics-manipulators are part of the group, in addition to percussionist Paul Lytton and violinist Philipp Wachsmann – two long-time Parker associates – utilizing live electronics. On the acoustic side, Barcelona’s Agustí Fernández plays both acoustic and prepared piano; New York’s Ned Rothenberg clarinet and bass clarinet; and Peter Evans, another American, trumpet and piccolo trumpet.

Along with Parker, bassist Barry Guy and shô player Ko Ishikawa produce singular acoustic tones. But during the course of the suite, sound processing, sampling remixing and layering predominates, emanating from Lawrence Casserley’s signal processing instrument, Joel Ryan’s sampler and signal processor, Walter Prati’s computer processor plus the live electronics of Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer – who perform as Furt – and the sound projection of Marco Vecchi.

Somethingtobesaid on the other hand is nearly all acoustic, despite Butcher’s pre-recordings, Thomas Lehn’s analog synthesizer, Adam Linson’s bass and electronics and Dieb13’s turntables. Performed live at Huddersfield, sonic pleasure derives from trying to decipher which pulses are created electronically and which are the product of sophisticated extended techniques from Chris Burn’s piano, John Edward’s bass, Clare Cooper’s harp and guzheng and Gino Robair’s percussion and so-called energized surfaces.

Energized is a fine overall description for the CD, consisting of one long improvisation/composition, since gestures encompassing rubs, scraps, shuffles, plinks and strokes – usually fortissimo and staccatissimo – are layered into the piece. From the very beginning unvarying synthesized and oscillated peeps and pumps – not to mention captured voice replayed from the turntable or pre-recordings – reflectively pulse alongside clipped and sul ponticello swipes, slaps and wood-rending sounds from the bassists and guzheng player, plus piano glissandi and buzzing reed partials and tongue slaps. Often the sonic tautness is such that when Butcher plays a few measures in the common saxophone range, backed by Edwards’ slap bass, the effect is as upsetting as if a Renaissance harlequin had made a brief appearance in a Sci-Fi tale.

Although a collective work, space is also made for individual expression that never quite become solos or duos in the traditional sense. Around the seventh track indicator, for example, Burn compresses choruses of cascading keyboard runs and sweeping portamento notes in order to harmonically face off with electronic pulses and voltage vibrations from Lehn’s synthesizer. Afterwards he abruptly pumps out some quasi-stride-piano runs to accompany Butcher’s quacking reed timbres.

Earlier Robair’s crashes, bangs, cymbal slaps and bell-pealing plus freight-train shrills and resonating vibraharp strokes break through the blurry sound field to challenge the super-fast dial-twisting, in-and-out-stop-start flutters, clangs and flanges from the turntable and synthesizer. His energized surfaces as well as Lehn’s ring-modulator-like whooshes also serve as backdrop for curt, sparrow-like sibilant tweets and caws from Butcher. Subsequent reed-biting vibrations hook up with clattering from hard objects placed on and swept aside from the piano strings plus echoing cymbal crashes

Whether involved in pumping counterpoint in front of dense signal-processed crackling or circular-breathing alongside tremolo piano runs, Butcher’s unshaken aplomb while playing directs than concentrates the layers chromatically. Finally the various pitches and tones complete the sound circle.

Mixing live and processed tracks, The Moment’s Energy – recorded one year earlier in Huddersfield as well – is no less notable. Neither is Parkers playing any less self-possessed and energizing. But the other acoustic instruments are prominent as well, slashing holes in the quivering electronic pulses for their instruments’ textures, without upsetting the electro-acoustic balance.

Moving through the sixth and seventh variations on “The Moment’s Energy”, for instance, Guy’s spiccato rubs and pops evolve in double counterpoint with Wachsmann’s sul ponticello scratches and squeaks. As the fiddler’s cumulative timbres roll from the strings, processing exposes parallel violin lines which double and intersect with Wachsmann’s live sweeps. Meanwhile as the vector changes, Guy’s plucks and wood shaking are mixed with equivalent electronic melodic pulses. Later, after triggering signal processing – that is so sophisticated that together with the piano and horns it creates a wide-screen-like cinemascope-like coloration – Evans slurs low-key grace notes and accelerating pitch-slides as fungible organ-like electronic tones pulse beneath him.

Shortly before that Fernández’s extended interlude mixes low-frequency keyboard pitter-patter with stopped and strummed internal string vibrations as clouds of humming electronics splutter beside him. Sailing along harmonically, the pianist also riffs and rustles the keys, the resulting sounds of which are accompanied by rubbed drum tops and cymbals from Lytton.

Fernández’s sparkling glissandi meld with growling and snorting electronic blurs plus variable pitches loop at the top of “The Moment’s Energy II”. But the other timbres soon recede as Rothenberg’s a capella vibrations on bass clarinet accede to flying tongue slaps and affiliated renal resonance. As the undercurrent of buzzing reverb and processed oscillations simmer, the clarinetist is briefly joined by diaphragm vibrato from Parker, and then Rothenberg moves forward with growls and smears alongside hissing, blurry electro pulses, a cascade of plucked stops from Wachsmann and Guy, as well as fleet glissandi from the pianist.

Already celebrated for his playing, the strength of Parker’s composition and presentation is confirmed on “Incandescent Clouds”, one of two tracks recorded live. Here, the staccato, polytonal interaction between bubbling electronics, piano patterning and clipped bass lines is no more or less vivid than what is played on the tracks that mix live improv and electronics.

One can only hope that Huddersfield will continue to commission magnificent larger-group creations such as these from committed improvisers. The first-class creations Butcher and Parker produce on these CDs confirm the wisdom of earlier initiatives.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Moment: 1. The Moment’s Energy I 2. The Moment’s Energy II 3. The Moment’s Energy III 4. The Moment’s Energy IV 5. The Moment’s Energy V 6. The Moment’s Energy VI 7. The Moment’s Energy VII 8. Incandescent Clouds

Personnel: Moment: Peter Evans (trumpet and piccolo trumpet); Ned Rothenberg (clarinet, bass clarinet and shakuhachi); Evan Parker (soprano saxophone); Ko Ishikawa (shô); Philipp Wachsmann (violin and live electronics); Agustí Fernández (piano and prepared piano); Barry Guy (bass); Paul Lytton (percussion and live electronics): Lawrence Casserley (signal processing instrument); Joel Ryan (sample and signal processing); Walter Prati (computer processing); Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer (live electronics) and Marco Vecchi (sound)

Track Listing: Somethingtobesaid: 1. (08.14) 2. (07.47) 3. (05.26) 4. (09.48) 5. (06.36) 6. (06.01) 7. (02.14) 8. (09.07) 9. (04.12)

Personnel: Some: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones and pre-recordings); Chris Burn (piano); Thomas Lehn (synthesizer); John Edwards (bass); Adam Linson (bass and electronics); Clare Cooper (harp and guzheng); Gino Robair (percussion) and Dieb 13 (turntables)