CHRIS BURN piano (& percussion)
JOHN BUTCHER soprano & tenor saxophones
RHODRI DAVIES harp
JOHN EDWARDS double bass
1 - LOW STANDARD - 13:35
2 - HIGH STANDARD - 15:44
3 - THE REMOVE - 7:36
4 - SCHARLACHGLUT - 16:11
5 - RUSSELLIANA - 8:09
6 - SOUVENIR DE DOCTEUR - 6:30
All previously unissued
Most performances on the London improvising scene are by ad hoc duos, trios and quartets that, more often than not, only ever perform once. When such a group really clicks, there is an incentive to play again in that configuration. Some groups are so comfortable together that they become long standing affairs, lasting years or even decades. But even in those cases, the individual members also get involved in other ad hoc situations.
The musicians in the quartet heard on this CD have often worked together in duos. For example, John Butcher's duos with the other three members can be heard on FONETIKS (Bead LP 24) which was the recording debut of both Burn & Butcher, VORTICES & ANGELS (EMANEM 4049) and HIT & RUN (FMP CD116) respectively. Three of the quartet are also members of the larger group known as the Chris Burn Ensemble. However the two complete performances heard here were the first times they played as a quartet.
Chris Burn convened the group to perform at a mini-festival organised in the north-east London suburb of Walthamstow by Veryan Weston. The performance was so successful musically, that they decided to reconvene a few months later at one of the monthly Mopomoso concerts organised by Chris Burn & John Russell.
The four musicians involved are four of the most creative, inventive and original around today. All four specialise in extracting unheard of sounds from their respective instruments, and using them to make profound group (and solo) music. It must be emphasised that no amplification or other form of electronics were used - there were no loudspeakers in sight.
Burn and Butcher have been making music together since the late 1970s (when Butcher was also completing a doctorate on the theoretical properties of charmed quarks). John Corbett wrote in 1997 that: 'Chris Burn brings to the sound-board an improviser's sensitivity to open form exploration and a research scientist's intensity when it comes to the business of piano preparation and alteration.' Much the same could be said about the younger Rhodri Davies' approach to the harp - in fact Burn and Davies have performed some remarkable duos that sound far removed from what one expects to hear from a piano and a harp.
The two Johns seem to be everywhere these days. Butcher has built up a considerable (and much deserved) reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, whilst Edwards seems to be in just about every other London improvising group. Together with Burn and Davies, they form a quartet of listening musicians, able to contribute to the overall group music whilst still showing their individualities - a long standing feature of the London scene.
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2001)
"If you only seek out a single recording this year from the outer reaches of music, it might pay to find one including saxophonist John Butcher. While the rest of the world catches up, Butcher has established a reputation as one of the most technically accomplished players in British improvised music. Through exacting study of his instrument and a tendency to take nothing for granted when he performs, he's become a veritable alchemist of reed and breath.
Each of these musicians has a sizeable vocabulary of fascinating sounds. Burn plays the strings inside the piano as much as the keyboard, but can move fluidly from broad rippling string gestures to fidgety high register key plinkings, when the music demands it. Edwards is prone to eruptive plucked notes and rumbling sub-frequencies as he rummages around the bass. Davies' harp lends a distinctive timbre to the group and he utilises what sounds like unlikely objects to scrape, strike and sustain tones. Butcher provides the only non-string textures and one's ear is continually drawn to his almost tactile playing. On The Remove he gravitates to a few anguished and splintering notes which the group magnify into a rustic, decrepit blues - perhaps more in tune with the contemporary psyche than more mainstream "expressive" music.
If the term landscape is the right way to describe something so inextricably human, then what you have here is far removed from the stylised wilderness of groups like AMM. Low Standard has an intimate space. Sounds and players rub and collide in a manner more like a primeval ancestor of jazz than a branch of the avant-garde. The considered silences in Scharlachglut emphasise a sense of ebb and flow. Although entrancing, the proceedings aren't any more reassuring. Passages that others might build up for much longer are promptly mutated or shifted into a more chaotic state. The way sonic episodes build on each other creates a continual expansion, with no discernible pathway other than the players' moment-by-moment listening and critical response. The only way for listeners to connect with what is going on here is on exactly the same terms. Demanding, yes - and entirely worth the effort."
JOHN KENNEDY - WELLINGTON DOMINION 2002
"Pianist Chris Burn (who uses his instrument often as a percussion device here, more than I've heard him do so in the past) has long focused on his own music and ensemble, though he has played with all these fellows before. John Edwards is the contrabassist of choice these days, or so it seems, playing with everyone from Evan Parker to Veryan Weston and others on down the line. John Butcher is, as everyone knows, not only one of the most exciting sax players around but recently one of the most frequently recorded as well. Rhodri Davies ought to be far better known for his contributions to IST and other ensembles (he makes the unwieldy harp sound graceful and light, mercurially responsive to the kind of demanding situations favoured by British improvisers).
Not surprisingly given the idiosyncratic instrumental mix, there are a huge number of possibilities to be explored here. And one of the virtues of this disc is hearing the players do just that on their first two gigs. The first gig (tracks 1-3) is fully confident, as the players explore both their points of convergence (the harmony of strings - contrabass, inside piano, and harp - and the sound of scrapes - Butcher's bird trills and rubbed wood) and divergence (the contrast between arco, arpeggiated, and popping saxophonics). The second gig is even more expressive, with Butcher and Burn interacting quite inventively on Scharlachglut, the saxophonist responding to Burn's inside-piano inventions. Russelliana is understated without compromising the intense musical activity that characterises the other pieces. And, come to think of it, understated intensity isn't a bad way to capture the music from these two gigs. It's rich stuff, and fans of British free improv will dig."
JASON BIVINS - ONE FINAL NOTE 2002
"Chris Burn is a (relatively) big name on the London improv scene. His Ensemble has made impressive forays into the obscure field of 'compositions for improvisors' and solo CDs have impressed, but his small-group work has been less widely recognised. Yet this group is one of the best contexts in which he has worked, and it's a great pleasure to see them here in two concerts.
Burn's piano technique is very much of the 'extended' sort, to the extent that he rarely makes a normal piano sound. Using on-string preparations, percussive effects on the wood and strings, scraping and otherwise stimulating and so on, he has created a language influenced by Henry Cowell (whose music he has recorded) but also by the London free improvisation scene. It is textural and dynamic but often quiet, so that he's easy to miss in a large group. Even here his contribution isn't always obvious, but it's always there and usually significant.
John Butcher's name will be known to all but the least observant readers as one of the two or three premier saxophonists in the city. His language of multiphonics is unparalleled on the instrument, in particular as regards the incredible control he exerts over them. His playing always sounds controlled and thoughtful, intelligent and deliberate, and is far from the 'screams' which such effects often disintegrate into in less able hands. He and Burn are natural allies, and the music seems to flow from them.
Bassist Edwards has played with both men very frequently, and he has with almost everybody on the scene. He is perhaps less idiosyncratic than figures like Simon H Fell or Marcio Mattos, but he makes up for that with a surety and variety of technique and a fabulous imagination. Edwards is rarely heard to play a bad idea, and his ideas are often confident, even loud, part of the front-line. It's good to hear him without a drummer for a change: here he can really let his extrovert tendencies out to play.
Attentive readers will likewise be aware of Rhodri Davies, the young harpist who has become a regular on the London circuit and beyond. His knowledge of contemporary composition makes him a natural for this kind of group, with its chamber music sound, and his percussive, prepared approach chimes perfectly with Burn. The result is that often the ensemble becomes something like an avant garde string trio with Butcher in its midst. The results are perfect free improv."
RICHARD COCHRANE- MUSINGS - 2002
"If you know these four musicians, you can't help but be excited that they are finally playing together in such intimate and virtuosic company. As high as my expectations were for THE FIRST TWO GIGS, they were rightfully exceeded by the fluency of purpose and patience exchanged on this recording. I had it on one afternoon and thought the ventilator in my apartment had eaten a bird and was busy strumming its feathers. Nothing can prepare you for the eerie impact of hearing something akin to your own physiological functionings whirr and eventually bubble over in the 12th minute of High Standard. Preferring silence to either exaggerated or floppy expression allows a concentrated rummaging to occur and recur throughout Scharlachglut, opening extended silent periods frequently within the 16 minute track. That care towards group dynamics and the power of cohered subtlety makes the act of listening an intimate exercise for both musician and audience. Led by fluttery Butcherisms and airstrokes signalled by bowed strings seemingly attached to air, Souvenir De Docteur displays a sense of thriving tropical calm. A relaxed pacing is prevalent throughout; the musicians explore what appears out of each other and out of themselves with a dedication to the art of discovery over wilful self-fulfilment and display. Martin Davidson, in the liner notes, correctly remarks that they are 'a quartet of listening musicians'; this sensitivity translates into an intensely rewarding recording for the attentive listener devoted to questioning the music, as well as enjoying it."
ANDREW CHOATE - CODA 2002
"This group is about collective, spontaneous structural development. While a line-up of piano, reeds, bass and harp could hardly be considered conventional in any context, each of these players takes an approach to their instruments that moves the ensemble into a bracingly abstract sound space. What comes across immediately is the aesthetic synergy of these players. Each is acutely tuned to the spontaneous, interactive creation of instant composition.
Burn spends as much time inside his piano as he does at the keyboard, deconstructing it into a percussive string instrument. Davies uses the sparkling timbre of the harp, with masterful control of attack and sustain, to create translucent timbral blocks. Preparing, damping, beating, and scraping the strings, he elicits the sound of a koto, zither, or guitar, blending with and extending the colours of piano and bass. Edwards takes a particularly percussive role here, drawing on a forceful attack and dark, resonant tone. Many guitarists couldn't match his fleet, darting runs and lithe leaps from the buzzing low end of the instrument to the highest, hovering harmonic overtones. Butcher's subtly nuanced detail is painterly in its use of skittering pops, shifting overtones, and scrubbed skirling flurries to extend and expand the textures of his horns. Throughout, each of the players is inextricably interwoven into the ensemble. The listener quickly becomes lost trying to place the source of the various voices as lines and textures are seamlessly traded and spontaneously orchestrated. There is never a shadow of doubt that Burn hit on a potent combination here."
MICHAEL ROSENSTEIN - CADENCE 2002
"These were the first encounters of these musicians as a quartet, but they have considerable mileage together in other combinations, so the chemistry is already assured. Butcher always seems to play slightly differently when in Burn's company, a more expansive if not more conventional saxophone sound, and that is the case here, certainly on the earlier date. Burn himself moves restlessly about, not so much experimenting with sound as seeming to find the exact registration for something he has already considered, an approach that doesn't in any way dent the improvisational ethos of the group. It's tempting to dismiss Davis's contributions, simply because they are quieter and often have to be chased through the mix. He is a formidable musician, who would attract considerable excitment if he were playing any other instrument. Check out his work on Scharlachglut and Souvenir De Docteur."
RICHARD COOK &: BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS, 9th edition 2008
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