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John Butcher and Toshimaru Nakamura - Cavern with Nightlife

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Artist: John Butcher and Toshimaru Nakamura

Album: Cavern with Nightlife

Label: Weight of Wax

Review date: Feb. 14, 2005

Who knows where and under what circumstances John Butcher will appear next? The extraordinary tenor and soprano saxophonist, while he has remained committed to his long-standing partnerships over the years, has of late been willing to enter into increasingly challenging situations. Not only has he explored electroacoustic music with Polwechsel (not least in their wondrous encounter with Fennesz) and Phil Durrant, but has recently played with musicians as different as The Ex and (here) no-input mixing board whiz Toshimaru Nakamura.

These are the circumstances under which an improviser really can stretch, with different groupings not only transforming instrumental technique but also the ways in which one conceives of and approaches music-making. And really, of all the globe-hopping improvisers out there, Butcher has to be singled out and commended for his willingness to challenge some of his own preconceptions, to unsettle some of his own comfort zones, and to expand his voice (not least, in recent years, owing to his steady incorporation of electronics with his amplified saxophone and use of feedback; just consult the fine Fringes release Invisible Ear). Cavern with Nightlife, the first release on Butcher’s own label (his second one, actually, following Acta), comes from a brief Japanese tour from November 2002.

The first four tracks feature Butcher playing solo tenor and soprano in the vastly resonant space of Oya Stone Mountain in Utsonomiya City. The roiling trilling tenor explorations that are Butcher’s stock in trade are certainly here, but on tracks like the opening “Ideoplast,” the saxophonist takes a new angle of vision onto these familiar stratagems, not only experimenting with the reverberations of the metal bell of his instrument but also layering them with the cavernous echoes of the performance space (he explores similar ideas with his soprano on the dense “Mustard Bath,” the most Evan Parker-like piece here). It frequently sounds like an angry cave-dwelling animal poised to strike. “Ashfall” opens with a somewhat tentative exploration of intervals, but Butcher slowly layers different grains, tones, and articulations into the mix, creating a fascinating palimpsest. Heavy tenor popping opens “Ejecta,” but the piece soon evolves into a raucous session of brash glossolalia.

The last track is a 19-minute improvisation with Nakamura in Tokyo, the musicians’ first ever meeting (whereupon Butcher was apparently impressed by how very still Nakamura remains during performance). As good as the solo tracks are, the duet is the real reason to pick this record up. Not only is Nakamura is one of the world’s great improvisers working today, I am hugely impressed with Butcher’s ability to work in concert with him. Whisper soft soprano squeaks and gently coaxed feedback saxophone meld fluidly, seamlessly with the stripped-metal tones from Nakamura. And Butcher’s occasional crackles and sizzling flareups from his electronics derail some of Nakamura’s more restrained inclinations in provocative ways, especially in the piece’s wonderfully nasty conclusion. Let’s hope there’s more to come from this duo, and more of similar quality from Butcher’s new label.

By Jason Bivins

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