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Gerry Hemingway / John Butcher - Buffalo Pearl

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Artist: Gerry Hemingway / John Butcher

Album: Buffalo Pearl

Label: Auricle

Review date: May. 21, 2009

The partnership between percussionist Gerry Hemingway and saxophonist John Butcher is at least a decade old, and each musician has transformed significantly during that interval, developing an ever more personal language. Yet despite the intensity of their self-development, each player remains masterful at collaborative music; whereas it’s possible that an improviser’s expression would create something so singular it resists communication, this 2005 date from Buffalo’s Soundlab reveals how powerfully the opposite can come true. As good as their 2001 Red Toucan release Bowlers & Shooters was, Buffalo Pearl (on Hemingway’s own recently revived label) is even better.

Over the years, reviewers have occasionally characterized Hemingway as a “basher.” This has always struck me as preposterous, a silly default jazz writers sometimes indulge in whenever someone uses volume or repetition during the course of improvisation. Thirty seconds with this recording should change that – Hemingway sounds simply lovely on “Light Queen” as he slowly brings a blend of soft clicks and rattles to a boil, supplementing them with some almost tonal patterns. He’s extremely skilled at creating vivid contrast in timbres even as he and Butcher spool out lines that intertwine. It’s this level of interaction – generous and probing at the same time – that makes this music so fine.

After a buncha listens, I have to say that the somewhat dry acoustic of the space (and the recording) works well, insofar as it brings out a lot of the micro-detail in these improvisations. Hemingway, for example, plays very subtly here, often manipulating his drumheads to create some great detuning effects that work well with Butcher’s intense burrs. (The percussionist’s really got his electronics rig worked out too, with some well-placed caustic blips adding to things without overwhelming them.)

On “Head Nickel” (get it?), the sound opens up a bit, with more nicely tuned toms and long buzzing sax notes unfurling atop Hemingway’s patterns, occasionally winding their way into some grainy proto-licks until Butcher’s trilling becomes a dervish of sound that, deliciously, never quite reaches blowout stage. This is the kind of restraint that the pair evince throughout. Even “McGeist,” the longest track here, is patient to a fault, its lofty and abstract opening never building to obvious crescendo but instead flirting with near silence, at times almost dropping off entirely to leave only gentle whooshes and whorls, a ping, a snippet of birdsong (intriguingly, though, Butcher does reel off an elegant passage of chamber music lines that hearken back to his earliest recordings).

Toward the end of the concert, the duo delves into darker territory. On “No Illusion,” they explore scraped metal and guttural noises from the bell, slowly coaxing some wooden clacks and a menacing hum from the base sound. This piece moves seamlessly into the concluding “The Good Neighbor,” where Butcher’s laser soprano cuts through the rough industrial shapes Hemingway assembles. All in all, it’s a bracing set, a vivid entry from two superb improvisers and the kind of thing that restores your faith in free improvisation.

By Jason Bivins

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