You could spend a paragraph or two just charting the relationships between these musicians, and while those links are pertinent, that’s probably not the best way to get close to this music. So feel free to put the parentheticals into the search engine of your choice, and let’s dig in.
This much you should know; saxophonist John Butcher (AMM, Polwechsel) is good at having it both ways. The lifelong Londoner’s improvising derives richness from the sort of mutual understanding that arises in long-term musical relationships, but he also thrives on surprise. He gets both by playing with people very occasionally; this CD combines two encounters with Australian-born drummer Tony Buck (The Necks) that were performed a pair of festivals 40 months apart. For added variety, each set includes a different third player. Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl (Polwechsel, Schnee, Ton Art) plays on “Flamme,” which was recorded for the LMC Festival in 2007, and pianist Magda Mayas (Spill), Christine Abdelnour joins them for “Vellum,” from the 2011 edition of Freedom of the City.
In The Necks, Buck plays music that evolves slowly and is primarily melodic. In other settings, he lets himself change things up more, but you can still hear his patented slow slide during some extended passages of gently raining cymbal strikes during parts of “Flamme.” But Butcher is a very different foil than Buck’s usual partner, The Necks pianist Chris Abraham. His playing is full of short, punching interjections and quiet, bubbling textures; there are points where his contributions sound more like the wind or an old synthesizer than a saxophone. But whatever the sound he selects in the moment, Butcher can be counted on to simultaneously heighten its tension and point the way to whatever is coming next. At this point his catalog of sounds, while novel by comparison to your average jazz saxophonist’s, are nonetheless familiar; but the acuity with which he stokes the music’s excitement and amplifies its possibilities is all his own. Stangl responds with a catalog of his own, tossing choppy rockish chording, prickly acoustic string-tugs, and tart, isolated note-bends that elicit quick pivots from the other two players.
If “Flamme” is fired by productive friction, “Vellum” is founded on consonance. Mayas, like Butcher, sticks mostly to her instrument’s non-standard sounds. Her inside-piano swoops and hand-muted single notes also blend with Buck’s percussion so that they seem like one many-handed instrument, albeit one with orchestral range. While the concert lasts about as long as a Necks concert would, it stays away from their slow-building arc. Instead this music expands and contracts in peristalsic fashion, bursting out of each small tight space with a quick lunge that billows outward in all directions. There’s an especially beautiful spot near the end where Butcher’s fine-brushed tenor utterances seem to surface out of the other two players’ slow-motion gamelan so gradually that it seems to grow out of the music’s skin. Then in a second, it all turns to storm, and you can almost see them leaning into the wind. Then it resolves so quickly, it’s as though it was never there. Exquisite.