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John Butcher - Bell Trove Spools

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Artist: John Butcher

Album: Bell Trove Spools

Label: Northern Spy

Review date: Feb. 12, 2013

When does a note become a tone? What keeps its frequency and overtones together? When does it disintegrate into its component timbres? What role do acoustics play in those process continuums, and how can these multifarious sounds be achieved by a human, an instrument and a space? These are the questions saxophonist John Butcher has been exploring for decades. They inform these two beautifully recorded solo sessions, but Bell Trove Spools is no mere academic exercise. Butcher’s playing is delicate and confrontational while digging deep into the place where sound and space coexist.

We find Butcher in two performance environments, though only one has an audience. Both Houston’s Richmond Hall and Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room are vastly different resonant spaces, especially considering that IPR was empty for this recording. Butcher’s penchant for manipulating the acoustic properties of such spaces is not new, but each time, his complete intimacy with whatever instrument he’s playing leads to unpredictably Protean improvisations. He transcends period and musical dogma, encompassing everything from traditional harmony to what we still laughably call “extended techniques,” as though (since we don’t have vocabulary fit to describe what we hear) the past 50 years of improvised music have taught us nothing.

The first of the “Dart” series, all performed in Brooklyn on soprano saxophone, engages an interval, then a chord, then various extensions of both, the resonance of the space holding it all together as Butcher’s staccato tones ultimately take on the multiphonics for which he is respected. His jabs and thrusts evoke the British improv scene that fostered him, but the chords hearken back to the tonal fundamentals of Western music. By the fourth “Dart,” he is running hell-for-leather up and down one scale after another, conjuring images of Paul Dunmall’s more recent work on the same instrument, leaving shards of shattered post-tonal sonority in his wake.

By contrast, the first half of the disc, with Butcher in Houston and playing tenor, might be seen as an extension of the multiphonics Coltrane was going after in the 1960s on “I’ll Wait and Pray” and then continued to pursue on the Miles Davis tour. In fact, the opening moments of the set present gorgeously translucent harmonies that morph into beats of varying tempo that might have come from an Alvin Lucier composition, and then into powerful rasps that only Simon Rose’s solo discs approach. There is tasteful use of amplification throughout, most obviously on “Willow Shiver,” where crystalline feedback is integral to Butcher’s conception. Yet, all of this tonal and timbral intrigue is tempered by exploration of the space. A remarkably visual effect results from Butcher’s changing proximity to the microphone amidst the keyclicks and runs on “Padded Shadows,” where it almost feels as if he is moving in circles. I say “feel” because the recording’s dimensionality transcends hearing, almost inhabiting a physicality that takes recognizable shape and transforming my listening space in the process.

The techniques can be cataloged, but the way they form each piece is astounding. With each solo disc — and there are too few of them — Butcher comes closer to the kind of freedom improvisers seek, to the fluidity and continuity of expression that unites mind, spirit and body in spontaneous creation.

By Marc Medwin

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