“As I chip away at, and redirect, the individual freedoms and responsibilities of improvisation, can I replace them with anything as worthwhile?”
This was the question that British Saxophonist John Butcher posed in the programme accompanying his octet’s specially commissioned performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November 2008. On the strength of the live album documenting this performance, the answer is resounding in its affirmation.
Butcher’s long association with British Improv; from the London Musician’s Collective and the deceased head of all things mawkish and striving, Derek Bailey, to his international collaborations with the likes of Toshimaru Nakamura and Austrian group Polwechsel certainly highlight Butcher’s polymath tendencies. For this outing, Sydney’s Clare Cooper on harp and guzheng and Californian percussionist Gino Robair are part of an international ensemble that certainly know their chops.
This hour-long performance veers between the disquieting spectres of a thousand insects descending upon the set of Blade Runner, with the odd nod towards the shadow of Albert Ayler; hard-bop sax runs emerging from seemingly electronic scree. I say ‘seemingly’ as with many of Butcher’s enterprises it is virtually impossible to tease out the acoustic from the electronic. Spectral voices of old answering machines invoke the atmosphere of a Cape Canaveral countdown, before the symbiotic interplay of Cooper’s Guzheng and John Edward’s athletic double bass slur into increasingly psychopathic vocal treatments reminiscent of a regular collaborator of Butcher, Phil Minton.
The concept of ‘responsibilities’, especially in the context of a contemporary musical performance may strike the listener as po-faced Marxism, but the John Butcher Group delivers handsomely on their leader’s question. There is definitely ‘somethingtobesaid’ here.