Sound Mining a Treasure Trove

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John Butcher
Bell Trove Spoils
USA NORTHERN SPY NSCD 032 (2012)

Veteran saxophone improviser John Butcher is sufficiently well regarded to necessitate few words of introduction. His ‘establishment’ membership predates my own genesis, and – going by his CV – he’s on first name terms with most sentient beings, having recorded with many of them. Yet, if this collection of solo recordings is anything to go by, he’s as restless and curious in his introversion as he is gregarious while socialising. Either that, or he has the capacity to dialogue with extra-personal entities undetectable to the garden-variety perceptual set.

Butcher’s solo recordings (many of them live performances) serve as an introspective break from his myriad social excursions, four of which (well, including another solo LP) have been released since this CD. If this proliferation indicates an unfettered taste for freedom and adventure, then Bell Trove Spools serves as a contrastive exploration of a more limited set of variables. This time, Butcher retreats into the studio for a smorgasbord of feedback, resonance, close-miking and a cataloguing of the many breathing techniques he’s amassed throughout his many years behind the reed. It’s a captivating and exhaustive exercise, and – being his first such foray in just under a decade – is an opportunity he’s loathe to squandering.

Track titles range from playfully quotidian (‘A Place to Start’) to poetically paradoxical (‘Perfume Screech’), bearing testament to the contrasting dynamics Butcher brings home to his hermetic hovel. The former (and opener) finds him flexing: softly vibrating the mouthpiece in increasingly elongated exhalations, as though fine-tuning the frequency for an act of cobra-hypnotism. The deep resonance of the surrounding space suggests both distance and proximity; an experience more amplified in the all-too brief ‘Padded Shadows’; ostensibly an exercise in two-fingered typewriting in an echoing tunnel. The restless air around the daddy longlegs rattle of ‘Willow Shiver’ provides the apotheosis of this approach.

As the CD progresses, its separation into individual tracks appears increasingly arbitrary; each track covering greater sonic terrain than the one prior, as Butcher identifies the cracks between his sounds, and the micro-fissures between those. Consequently, beginnings and ends become more loosely defined, as the taste for exploration becomes an appetite for abstraction, with the remit of Butcher’s personal satisfaction comprising the sole governing criteria for the status of completion.

Nonetheless, each piece is realised meticulously, never outliving its natural lifespan. The sounds interrogated range from frenzied avian twitters to elephantine death rattles; the ballistic spattering of bark chips in stereo to the wresting of Glass-like minimal phrases from a muddy morass. To catalogue these in any further detail would be to undo the careful work Butcher has undertaken. Suffice to say, opportunities for listener boredom are non-existent.

John Butcher
Northern Spy

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