Where is he finding these people? You’d think, at this point in his career, that John Butcher would have hit the ceiling – that he’d have found his last collaboration, formed his last band. Amongst recent outings, his rolodex has included Keiji Haino, Rhodri Davis and Joe McPhee, each coming up against his saxophone with their own instrument in a one-time-only live setting. In 2014, he released Tarab Cuts with his longtime collaborator Mark Sanders, realising one of the most singular musical outings of his career – a musical response to a collection of Arabic music suggested by artist Tarek Atoui. He spent 2017 playing in an oddity of a trio with moog player Pat Thomas and drummer Ståle Solberg, producing a righteously untoward combination of sounds. There’ll surely be more to come: with a family of familiar faces, Butcher has continued to find himself in entirely new circumstances, making music that is bona fide new.
It’s simple, really: Butcher plays with people because he appreciates their music. ‘I choose who I play with because I value them as musicians, and that isn’t because they work in a particular style – the idea is always to draw on different sides of my own playing’. It’s been decades, and he’s learned nearly everything he can about his woodwinds, but things are still happening to him; there are still ways an artist can play that will inform the way he does. At the same time, he’s still discovering the world: he and McPhee stranded themselves in the West Texas desert for At the Hill of James Magee, their improvisations echoing the power of the ‘extreme’ environments Butcher found himself soloing in for his album Resonant Spaces. Over the course of his career, his instruments have become vessels, travelling through particular settings and coming out the other side changed.
Butcher thrives in face of the unknown. He knows how to play, but he’s open to how else he could play. In 2010, he became a founding member of S4, joining the versatile soprano sax players Christian Kobi, Hans Koch and Urs Leimgruber. The group convened around the idea of taking the smallest member of the saxophone family and enlarging it. As a chorus of sopranos, they have spent a decade going to the edge of the instrument’s possibilities, unleashing a torrent of extended techniques that sound both harsh and harmonious. S4’s open ended concerts and wide-ranging recordings harken back to something Butcher told interviewer Dan Warburton in 2001: ‘the soprano is prone to superficial agility’. Through 10 years of improvisations, S4 have been exploring the incredible sensitivity of their shared instrument – the ways it has led a history of jazz players down the rabbit hole, surprising them with boundless scope.
Weirdly enough, Butcher is a solo artist – he’s just been living in plurals. He’s not only found artists to attach himself to, but places, objects, and machines. When he talks about his work, it’s often in reference to where he made it, or through which chain of events. At hcmf// 2019, he’s presenting a new work called Magnetic Bottle IV. It was made with the Huddersfield Immersive Sound System (HISS), a loudspeaker rig that comprises a large scale network of channels and speakers. Often described as an ‘orchestra’, the HISS is another impact point, a way through which Butcher’s saxophone will change. It’s a portal: Butcher will use the system to create swathes of amplified feedback, transforming his solo playing into a series of intertwining saxophone lives.
For Butcher, this is a golden opportunity. He’s rarely had the chance to use this kind of technology live; amplified feedback has only very occasionally formed part of his performance. With the HISS, he can make it happen – so he will. Falling into the situation, he’ll find the music out, somehow revealing something new about him and his instrument.
Photo (C) Andy Moor