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JOHN BUTCHER soprano and tenor saxophones

2 - FIRST BOTTLE - 3:48
3 - SECOND BOTTLE - 8:07
4 - THIRD BOTTLE - 12:51
5 - LAST BOTTLE - 6:02
6 - THE TRAIN AND THE GATE part 1 - 4:16
7 - THE TRAIN AND THE GATE part 2 - 1:24
8 - ROBUSTA - 5:32
9 - LIBERICA - 4:55
10 - ALMOST NEW - 3:31
11 - NEARLY ART - 3:40
12 - SINKING DOWN - 2:15
13 - FLAG A RIDE - 4:02
14 - CLARENCE - 2:21

Digital recordings, all in concert except 6-7:
1 - Milwaukee - 1997 June 29
2-5 - Chicago - 2000 May 14
6-7 - Brussels - 2000 April 9
8-9 - Berkeley - 1997 June 22
10-11 - San Francisco - 2000 June 22
12-13 - Madrid - 2000 September 30
14 - London - 1999 May 20
Total time 67:13

All previously unissued


Excerpts from sleeve notes:

My early group improvising led to a lot of experimenting to try to avoid those traits of saxophone playing that make it a natural solo voice. At the time I thought they conjured up too many past idioms, and lacked the transparency I wanted in group playing. Part of the initial drive towards doing solo concerts was to see if the 'new' material I'd come up with could work on its own. After a few performances I'd learnt a lot about making connections, but had also noticed recognisable pieces beginning to develop, and worried about what this meant for long-term solo work. Composers can wrap up a piece, send it out into the world, and move on to the next. Individual improvisers must repeatedly re-create their music at each performance. But, whilst the quality of newness may be hard to pin down, improvisation can only make sense when it is somehow connected to the hope of finding, spontaneously, some music you don't really know about beforehand.

Playing 'pieces' is too close to playing 'routines' and a concert is an opportunity for much more - a chance to engage with what Derek Bailey described in his book as a 'search for whatever is endlessly variable'. A good concert has something to do with the nature of the interaction, and balance, between the 'pre-discovered' and the 'free' or, more accurately, the 'being-discovered'. For a while I came under the spell of John Cage and, whilst there's undoubtedly something refreshing about 'allowing sounds to be themselves', it soon became clear that for improvisation to make sense, sounds must be put to work. It's through solo playing that I've found myself reconsidering some of music's more traditional concerns, like line, pacing and flow - and it seems to be that when you're alone, you really learn the weight of your ingredients.

JOHN BUTCHER (This was shortened and adapted in 2000 from a piece on solo playing published in Rubberneck 27 in 1998)


Excerpts from reviews:

"In these gentle, fierce and unstintingly thoughtful explorations of the saxophone in its various spaces, it is a pleasure to listen to the process of making fine art."

RICHARD COOK and/or BRIAN MORTON - 'The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD' 2002

"Saxophonist John Butcher discovers something new during every one of the 14 solo improvisations on this marvellous compilation. Drawn from concerts on both sides of the Atlantic, the improvisations each wed the excitement and surprise of discovery to an engaging sense of proportion, pacing, and form. For instance, Woodland Drift is an elegant exercise in line and colour. The Train and the Gate part 1 is a continuous stream of bold assertive tones and sharp-edged trills, in contrast to the gestural daubs and splatters of notes and short phrases in Nearly Art. The four pieces recorded at Chicago's Empty bottle display an exacting control of tenor and soprano saxophone textures, dynamics, and colours. Quite often, Butcher produces more than one sound at a time, such as the simultaneous high-pitched twitter and low-pitched rasp that he fiddles with throughout Second Bottle. On Third Bottle, solid notes materialise from surrounding envelopes of sound, and Butcher gradually strings the notes into linear forms. These are all highly concentrated and intensely realised improvisation. It's their purity of sound and clarity of organisation that make this an exceptional document of the improviser's art."


"Though saxophonist John Butcher is not short on instrumental prowess, his primary assets lie in the realm of ideas. On FIXATIONS (14), Butcher has rejected conventional jazz thinking (swing, melodicism, harmonic cycles) in favour of creating his own personal language of improvisation.

So the pursuit of a new musical vocabulary and style dominates each solo saxophone exploration on FIXATIONS (14). Butcher is quite eager to take a simple idea and gradually build it through time and space until it acquires special meaning. His gentle exhalations at the start of Third Bottle, for example, hover at the extreme lower end of audibility. However, they gradually acquire texture and body until the bubbling froth assumes tonal character, then progresses to a bird-like timbre, then oscillates into labyrinthine note flurries that defy conventional rules of order.

The other improvisations on FIXATIONS (14) reflect a similar inspiration and spirit, though they differ dramatically in organization and tone. Butcher's sound (especially on the soprano saxophone) tends to be deliberate, understated, and delicate. Though he makes plenty use of extended techniques on this record, you'll find no extroverted Aylerisms here. FIXATIONS (14) is improvised solo chamber music, carefully measured and explored with an ear for coherence and lyricism. In light of the great volcanic explosiveness of many of today's free improvisers, John Butcher offers a reminder that subtlety has an equally important role to play in improvisation."


"FIXATIONS is a series of live recordings over a three-year period. Woodland Drift has a pastoral sound, as if Butcher'd been listening to some of his countrymen Bridge and Britten's chamber music. This is no weakness; there feels a plan to this path, and some of it is lyrical; within, of course, the free improv context. There is breathing and lipflutter through the mouthpiece and some multiphonics accompanying the 'melody'. The four Bottle pieces, recorded in Chicago at the Empty Bottle, vary from each other. The second uses very rapid flickers of sound, with attendant squeaks and chirps. A nice unintended effect in The Train and the Gate pieces is the rush of a nearby train, which was well-timed and made me look in the booklet to see if Butcher was using any effects before I noted the title.

Robusta is intense and hypnotic; the other Berkeley piece, Liberica, is a riveting creation. One hears a structure being built even as it is being explored. Butcher sculpts throughout the rich, seventy minute disc. Although recorded at seven venues, there is a unity. It's easy to sit through the entire disc, although of course you can enjoy selections at will."


"John Butcher is one of the leading lights in what might be termed the post-Evan Parker school of saxophone improvisers. While Parker elaborated on and extended to great lengths ideas derived in part from the playing of John Coltrane, musicians such as Butcher take the abstractions limned by Parker (among others) and go one or two steps further. One aspect of these players is to consider the saxophone more as a sound-producing combination of metal and reed and to uncover the multitude of sound that it can produce as an object, whether or not those sounds are obtained in traditional fashion. While Butcher, on this release, largely confines himself to breath-induced attacks (though the clacking of keys can also be a significant element), the range of sounds he's able to conjure up is astonishing. Each piece seems focused on a particular sonic territory and that area is wrung and investigated until almost dry. In this sense, his approach is similar to Braxton's solo studies where each composition is explicative of a particular 'language', the grammar of which is set forth. Butcher, however, is further removed from jazz concerns and more directly involved with the physical nature of his instrument, especially its timbres. Some of these explorations might be seen in line with his prior career as a professor of physics, but if there were nothing more to his improvisations than experiments, the results may have been far drier than they turn out to be. In fact, Butcher combines this intellectual search with an extremely strong sense of musical structure and, in an odd way, melody, making for songs which carry a surprising emotional impact. Along with musicians like Michel Doneda and Bhob Rainey, John Butcher has been excavating new areas for saxophone improvisation that few even realised existed and doing so with both intelligence and beauty. Highly recommended for the adventurous listener."


"From short 90 seconds vignettes up to a 13 minute piece, Butcher inventories all he can get out of a soprano and a tenor saxophone. Circular breathing, quacks, split-tones, jazz references, classical references, he does it all. More important than the techniques used and the references quoted is the art of performance: the man delivers sharp in-the-moment improvs, taking new turns in each track. The four Bottle pieces make up 30 of the disc¹s 67 minutes, a complete solo set recorded in Chicago. Here the saxophonist gets lengthier and more expressive. It might be one of his best recorded performances. The other highlight is found in the two solos recorded in Berkeley, Robusta a circular breathing piece, Liberica very playful with lots of staccato playing. The CD ends with the short Clarence, where Butcher blows softly in his soprano sax, making as little noise as possible. FIXATIONS (14) is the long-awaited solo CD worthy of Butcher's solo performances. A must."


"John Butcher long ago tossed out 90% of his instrument's conventional vocabulary and created a highly individual dialect from the sounds that were left. He's so developed his mastery of multiphonics than he can shift between grainy gargles and pure, sculpted tones and back again within a single phrase. He's also an impressive manipulator of acoustic effects. This CD fixes for posterity fourteen temporally and geographically scattered fragments of his ongoing search for music's unfixed elements. It includes his responses to passing trains in Brussels, an extraordinarily textured circular breathing excursion from San Francisco, and all of a triumphant solo concert recorded a year ago at Chicago's Empty Bottle Festival. All of them unfold with a rigorous internal logic that renders his most abstract works coherent and graspable."


"John Butcher arranges dog-call whistles, gritty multiphonics and immaculate pure tones with scientific precision and a sculptor's sense of shape."


"John Butcher's collection of concert pieces could be considered solo saxophone music steeped with vestigial remnants of Evan Parker's innovations, but it's still a highly iconoclastic affair. Gathered from various tour tapes, the tracks deliver a striking cross-section of Butcher's approach and oeuvre. Extended techniques abound in the often-asymptotic improvisations, but there are also frequent snatches of lyricism and even melodicism in Butcher's oblique machinations. Woodland Drift provides an early entry point into this sometimes-precarious (and always demanding) marriage of abstract and pastoral. The Bottle series is another excellent capsule study in Butcher's punctilious prowess, moving from serrated tenor multiphonics in the opening piece to droning streams of sustained sound loosed through soprano in the recital's second act. The tenor piece that follows starts slowly, a wash of breath sounds that solidify into a rasping, whirring, staccato line flanked by the whispering flutter of keypads. Butcher completely circumvents register restraints as he freely traverses terrain from his instrument's deepest timbral canyons to the highest pitched peaks. With the two-part The Train and the Gate, taped in a refurbished train station, he makes use of dimensional acoustics to create Doppler-like shifts in volume and split tones on soprano. Robusta and Liberica explore similar territory with tenor. Another tour de force in sustained multiphonics, Flag a Ride demonstrates Butcher's more raucous side. The hushed bifurcated tones of the concisely communicated Clarence act as a fittingly enigmatic close. Fascinating to hear, his fingers, breath and ironclad embouchure take his reeds in directions seldom guessed in advance of mapped effectively by notation."


"Technically at the cutting edge, John Butcher also has an abiding concern for shape and emotive projection. While tackling the highest register of the soprano sax Clarence, with its animated breath textures and pinched, plaintive tones could be a sad epilogue to Steve Lacy's 'mouse opera' Josephine.

Nearly Art has a playful, delirious melodic line broken up by fluttering percussive interjections. The incorporation of multiple voices into a single performance is relaxed and unstrained, like loose dialogue rather than precise, premeditated design.

Flag a Ride is primeval sax, a mournful and desolate evocation of blues pathos. Here and on several other pieces prolonged tones are split apart unflinchingly. Butcher comments on the sleeve that 'sounds must be put to work'. He's not afraid to do the work at what could be the outer reaches of his formidable technique, honing in on more unstable areas of sound production (echoing an approach sometimes taken in improvised electronic music).

These concert recordings have been well selected and edited so the material, though demanding, never grinds. The protracted multi-phonics on Second Bottle are engrossing, like a creaking gate that you would never want to oil. Butcher's achievement is to render his music with warmth and real, unabstracted intensity. Not 'nice' sounds, but vital music."


"John Butcher is that relative rarity in the world of improvised music: an artist who doesn't just perform unaccompanied but who truly understands the specific demands and artistry of solo improvisation.

Butcher has, like a select few saxophonists, made a genuine step forward and has spoken in a compelling solo voice. Certainly the evident musical pleasures are here in abundance. His improvisations are always top-notch, both technically and aesthetically. The different improvisational strategies he uses call attention to the function of place in the making of music through explicit reliance on techniques that bring out sonic qualities in both his horns and the musical environments.

His pieces are not bothered with chops or notes or scales or anything so mundane; instead they focus on found sounds, environment, texture, and intimacy. In the spacious surroundings of Woodland Drift, Butcher blows some very lyrical soprano, delving into more conventional phrasing and note choice than one hears in the later pieces (there are occasional flashes which suggest he was listening to modern classical, particularly Scelsi's or Boulez's works for clarinet). But on the series of pieces from the Empty Bottle, Butcher patiently opens up his own world of sound: buzzes, vibrations, and spitting fire with balmy relief.

Butcher is really one of the few improvising saxophonists working today who plays without a preponderance of cliché. Certainly he builds on the achievements of some rather obvious sources - particularly Evan Parker and Steve Lacy - but he is slowly developing a language of his own, composed of incisions and alien noises like chirps, flutters, buzzes, clangs, and shrieks. It is the solo improviser's task to place this language in dialogue with silence. On these pieces, Butcher demonstrates his growing mastery."



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