RED Trio + John Butcher

Empire
No Business Records NBLP 37

Although it may be fanciful to suggest that this is British saxophonist John Butcher’s Hard Rock record, his playing is certainly more voluble, raunchy and strident than on the majority of his recent sessions.

It may be because on this three-track LP the master of cerebral understatement is matched up with a trio of Portuguese Gen Xes who in this context enliven the common piano-bass-drum trio with enough rough and physical textures to frighten fans that prefer impressionistic pastels. That’s rough, but not crude however, for pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino and percussionist Gabriel Ferrandini have demonstrated a sensitive interface on other discs.

Besides touring the Iberian Peninsula with Butcher, the Lisbon-based trio members have a working knowledge of Rock; have played as a group with American avant trumpeter Nate Wooley; and individually worked with other anything-but-shy improvisers such as saxophonist John Zorn (Pinheiro), saxophonist Jon Irabagon, (Faustino) and cornetist Rob Mazurek (Ferrandini).

Whatever it is, as early as the first track, Butcher lots loose with some thickly vibrating and splintering altissimo punctuation that`s a lot closer to 1960s Free Jazz expression than what he usually plays. Meanwhile Pinheiro, for one, spurs minimalism, instead studding his solos with swift soundboard echoes, internal string strumming and high-intensity chording. Similarly as the expositions are developed, there are times when slide-whistle-like shrilling is heard. With his saxophone mastery, Butcher could be adding an intense parallel line to his improvisations. Or, on the other hand, the screech could arise from Ferrandini’s percussion mastery, which includes hand-patting drags, rim shots and flams plus measured cymbal claps and stentorian thumps. Nonetheless it’s the pianist who is most percussive in his playing. Frequently tremolo and highly syncopated, his circular keyboard chording sometimes matches the saxophonist’s circular breathing. Other times he’ll focus on repeated, high-pitched key clicking or use pressure to expose the deepest vibrations from his instrument. For his part, Butcher stresses trills that are watery and murmuring at one point, yet ascend to staccato interstellar-space exaggerations at others. In a way odd man out, Faustino keeps time and stays out of the way.

Exposing individual variants of note distension early on, the four-way communication reaches a climax of cumulative tension on the final and title track. With the bassist finally asserting himself with sul ponticello and col leno swipes and the percussionist’s mallet-driven chops providing the backdrop, the more-than-23-minute exposition bounds from Butcher to Pinheiro and back again. The pianist’s chromatic keyboard work takes in tremolo cadences in the instrument’s lowest register until he breaks free for friction-laden episodes of syncopated string strumming. Meantime the saxophonist blasts out juddering multiphonics, slurring, stuttering and splaying broken chords. In short order the nearly three-dimensional polyphony reaches a crescendo of drilling reed bites and nephritic honks matched with keyboard claps, clips and smacks until both are cut off and the narrative is completed by an isolated string pluck from Faustino.

Likely to be a unique entry in both Butcher’s and the Red trio’s discographies, Empire is a wild ride that should be experienced by everyone.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Sustained 2. Pachyderm 3. Empire

Personnel: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones); Rodrigo Pinheiro (piano); Hernani Faustino (bass) and Gabriel Ferrandini (drums and percussion)