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John Butcher - Invisible Ear

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Artist: John Butcher

Album: Invisible Ear

Label: Fringes

Review date: Sep. 29, 2003

When Anthony Braxton first recorded his 1969 album of solo saxophone improvisations For Alto, the concept of improvisational solo reed performances was still in its infancy. Since then it has become an art form onto itself, cluttered with the excesses of neophyte and seasoned veteran alike. Unfortunately, very few of these artists explore their instruments with the dedication to progression and feral intensity of John Butcher. Though his earlier work embraced a traditional jazz outlook, Butcher has taken great strides in moving further and further afield from the conventions of both jazz and improv musics. With Invisible Ear, he has taken his boldest step yet, approaching a level of experimentation previously unheard of through the use of close-miking and amplification in startlingly unconventional manners.

Butcher had used these techniques in the past, although on Invisible Ear they were a self-confessed result of “working more closely with computer/electronic musicians.” From the first high-pitched tone of the disc’s opener “Swan Style”, this kinship with electronic music becomes readily apparent as the act of breathing produces a frenzy of microtonal activity akin to listening to mechanical birds exchanging mating calls. “Cop Anatomical” introduces the concept of underwater sax, playing with each breath gurgling intensively, bubbling to the surface as the clicking keys provide a menacing backing. This close-miking reaches its pinnacle with “Dark Field”, giving one a tour of the inner workings of the horn, following each oxygen molecule’s path from reed to bell in grinding slow-motion. Butcher uses amplification with confidence and bravado, manipulating the ensuing feedback in much the same manner as an electric guitarist, to twist and bend each note into an indecipherable aural dialect. The results have more in common with the work of Xenakis, Hafler Trio and CM von Hausswolff than any jazz musician; a true measure of their far-reaching nature.

The multi-tracked pieces on Invisible Ear probe even deeper into Butcher’s methodology, connecting his current experiments with his past. The overtone workout of “What Remains” treads familiar ground before switching from serialism mode into the calming drone of a Buddhist mantra. “Sprinkler” adds the echo of a resonant room to the mix, provoking the accumulating sax lines to ricochet off the walls endlessly. Both amplification and multi-tracking are combined in “The Importance Of Gossip”, though the track is far too short to leave a definite impression; rather Butcher appears to be teasing the listener with the sound of his future.

Limited to 600 copies, this disc should not be confined to the whim of improv/jazz fans as its true appeal lies with those who nurture a love of feedback and noise. Personally, I’d trade in my tired copy of For Alto for this any day of the week.

By Everett Jang Perdue

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