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John Butcher and John Edwards - Optic

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Artist: John Butcher and John Edwards

Album: Optic

Label: Emanem

Review date: Sep. 5, 2003

Saxophone / Bass Duos from Butcher and Edwards

John Butcher / John Edwards


Emanem 4089

Both of the performers on this Emanem release are veteran ‘second generation’ British improvisers of stature, and this record both confirms that status and raises questions about the direction of ‘the music’ as we enter firmly into the 21st century.

Butcher, who also had a lengthy engagement with Physics (including PhD study on ‘charmed quarks’) has been playing the saxophone for 25 years, which is vividly illustrated on this recording. His comrade on this release, the prolifically documented and creative bassist John Edwards, has been deeply involved with free improvisation since the mid 1980s.

Confirmation of the virtuosity of these performers is evident within the first few seconds of banter, which contains surgically placed bursts of flutter-tongued saxophone multiphonics and overtone rich arco bass figures. A volley of conversation following the unspoken ‘rules’ of free improvisation in the stereotypically ‘British insect music’ tradition continues for the first three minutes, at which point there is a brief shift to a surprising, spontaneously composed form that makes you forget that there are rules at all in this practice. It is that moment of joyfully disoriented surprise that most listeners of this music crave, and that seems somewhat rare on this album. There is a ‘by the numbers’ feel to the more rambunctious sections of these pieces that makes this listener question the direction of free improvisation post Y2K.

As extended techniques become further and further explored, mapped, and (in some cases) notated, reaching a point of unconscious manifestation and muscle memory recall, where does the freshness go? As the reification of ‘accepted’ interactions and forms of development continues, how can free improvisation continue to flow freely (excuse the pun) and not become a swirling eddy in some riverine backwater?

This is not an ‘it’s all been done, so why try’ lament, but rather a challenge that creative musicians face every time they play. This recording does reach that point of wonderful freshness a lot, but not enough to make the above questions and observations unnecessary. Is it possible for it all to be fresh and new? Probably not. Musicians are humans too, and have beating hearts that keep march time pounding through their veins, imbuing a pulse of regularity and repetition to their entire being that is present even if they try to deny it.

To end with the usual glib, round-em-up, reviewer as tastemaker sound bite is perhaps shameful, but I’ll do it anyway. If you like your free improvisation like a good Hollywood movie (ie. solid, well-executed and somewhat predictable, but with some wonderfully surprising twists) this is a great recording. If you prefer something that consistently makes you wonder what kind of music you’re listening to, I would suggest Butcher’s collaborations with Polwechsel and the trio with Xavier Charles and Axel Doerner. Better yet, listen to this music yourself and make up your own opinion.

By Andrew Raffo Dewar

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