John Butcher & Rhodri Davies - "Ouse Poppy" (Carliol)
Occasionally a record excites your ears simply because of the daringness of technique, the difficulty of a specific move, or the conscious extension of some bit of instrumental language. More often, though, improvised music fans need more than this to rev our motors. Jaded ears don’t necessarily want warmth or crave accessibility. But these days I find myself tiring quickly of not only conventional improv wrestling matches but also of pared-down micro-music, which too often falls into its own predictable patterns. Is it too much to ask for some good old-fashioned soul in one’s non-idiomatic improv?
This might seem like an odd category when considering the musicians on Carliol, but it’s one of the reasons I continually seek out the music of John Butcher and Rhodri Davies. Even in the craggiest or most sonically illegible moments, one hears in this music not the anxious heart of technical mastery but instead a submersion into sound — via generosity, empathy and intensity — that somehow isn’t achieved at the expense of individuality. Indeed, saxophonist Butcher is one of the truly distinctive voices on his instrument, having developed a distinctive language taking off from Evan Parker and developing ceaselessly through worlds avian, metallic, and electronic. Yet, for all its daring, there has always been something about Butcher’s playing that I’ve found to be sheerly lovely, perhaps no more so than of late as he’s steadily made electronics a part of his approach (which he does here, using feedback, motors, and an embedded harp speaker).
Harpist Rhodri Davies — with whom Butcher has played on numerous occasions (most memorably to me on Vortices & Angels and on several records with Chris Burn’s Ensemble) — is a superb partner on these seven duo performances. Davies, too, has been steadily using electronics more frequently, building on his gorgeous use of e-bows (heard to marvelous effect on his essential solo records for Confront) and now using electric harps, harps with speakers embedded in them, and other contraptions rigged for sonic alchemy.
From the outset of “Pandon Bank,” with its faucet drip and cavernous rumble, the musicians seem to be inspired by the aesthetic of Butcher’s recent place-specific improvisations. Each piece, indeed, has audible contours that make the details of the playing stand out — as in a frame — but also somehow recede and blend until sources and destinations seem unimportant next to the pleasures of simply bathing in this sound. On “Losh,” they flirt with the sounds of prepared piano, with tons of clinking metal tripping over steadily billowing tones. “Gallow Gate” is a bit tenser, with a lengthy squeaking inhalation that could almost be a Phil Minton kissy sound, continually at risk from being ground be a slowly turning gear. Though each track remains distinctive, I couldn’t help but hear them as a whole, as — from the menacing growl and amp hum of “Scragg” to the glorious layers of oscillation on “Ouse Poppy” — I felt continually like I was in some steampunk novel, oddly enough. But with the closing “Distant Leazes,” with each musician recording separately, the sound sings multitudes, like the universal chord of Theosophy, until Butcher’s rapid chirping lines remind you that, oh yes, there’s a saxophone here. That and much more.