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John Butcher - 13 Friendly Numbers

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Artist: John Butcher

Album: 13 Friendly Numbers

Label: Unsounds

Review date: Jun. 13, 2004

13 Friendly Numbers is a reissue of British saxophonist John Butcher's solo debut, originally released on his own ACTA label in 1992. It's a startling and very contemporary-sounding record, in part because Butcher's vocabulary of multiphonics, key clicks and squeals has since influenced a number of young saxophonists - Stéphane Rives, Bhob Rainey and Thomas Ankersmit among them - who are now making some of the newest-sounding free improv anywhere.

Nine of these 13 numbers are for solo saxophone. The remaining four multi-tracked pieces often feature many saxophones all playing the same technique. "Bells and Clappers" includes four tenor saxophones, all overblowing in a similar way, creating an effect not unlike the horn of a fire engine; later in the track, the four saxophones all play burbling tongue-slaps. In "Mackle Music," four saxophones (now baritone, tenor, and two sopranos) create a similar texture, this time with popping key clicks that are amplified from the inside of his instruments. Like the textures in much of Györgi Ligeti's music, Butcher uses similar materials in many different voices to generate an end result that sounds more like a single entity than a collection of distinct parts.

The nine unaccompanied pieces here are sometimes more traditional, as Butcher often lets rip melodic lines that are just to the left of Eric Dolphy. But when Butcher catches hold of an extended technique, he rarely lets go of it, and many of these pieces focus on noises rather than melodies. Many of these pieces have a scientific feel (Butcher has a background in physics; perhaps his musical and scientific studies come from the same parts of his personality), in that they sound as if they were constructed to explore the saxophone rather than to serve any traditionally emotional purpose. Butcher's consistently rigorous approach, his strange sense of phrasing and his odd vocabulary of sounds make 13 Imaginary Numbers compelling, and an excellent-sounding recording drives his point home.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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