John Butcher, saxophonist: Something Else! Interview

John Butcher is a musician whose name crops up regularly when I talk with other players. He is known for his experimental music, his fearlessness when it comes to playing in the moment and his acoustic exploration of spaces. Many players cite him as being influential and someone they respect.

This year, John celebrates his 60th birthday with concerts at Café Oto in London on November 28-29, 2014. He says it has “come ’round quickly,” but John has packed a lot in so far. He has played and collaborated with many musicians, including guitarist Derek Bailey, drummer John Stevens, experimental musician Toshi Nakamura, double bass player John Edwards, percussionists Paul Lovens, Eddie Prevost and Mark Sanders, trumpeter Peter Evans, pianist Matthew Shipp, composer and percussionist Gino Robair and many more. He has worked in duets, small groups, larger bands and his music includes improvisation, his own compositions and exploratory music with acoustics and electronics.

He uses the natural and man-made variations found within large acoustic spaces, such as the solo works from inside the Oberhauasen Gazometer in Germany in 2006, his multitracked works and many solo and collaborated works. He has released CDs and collaborated on recordings with major players. As well as jazz, Butcher has been a member of rock and experimental music groups including an avant-rock band Habilis whilst still at university — where he played keys.

When you listen to Butcher play, you get a sense of a musician who is curious, still exploring and examining effects — almost as if he has not yet quite found the true extent of his range, and wants to push whatever perceived boundaries may be in place just about as far as they can go. He plays differently in different places, tries different sounds and new ideas. The range of players he has joined forces with is vast and with some he achieves almost sublime cohesion whilst with others, there is tangible evolution of the music as they play. What remains constant is the respect with which Butcher is spoken about by other players.

John Butcher was born in Brighton, South East England, and grew up in South London and Kent. He recalls the Beatles as his first “musical excitement” in about 1964. He says, “My mum bought a record player so my brother and I could start getting their records. Then I found random TV and radio exposure, into my early teens. I just felt drawn to music. The trouble was, I was good at math and science, and at my secondary school you couldn’t combine that with the arts. I tried O-level lessons with the music teacher in his lunch break, but he soon got fed up with that. I was a schoolboy at the tail end of the British blues boom, and listened a lot to Mike Raven’s radio show, which played rural blues. [Raven was one of the BBC’s first Radio 1 DJs.] It was a powerful aural opening to a very extraordinary world. I heard people like [American blues singers and musicians] Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson and Bukka White. I still like that stuff a lot.”

John’s route to his instrument was the recorder, followed by the classical piano lessons, a guitar played in his bedroom and then the saxophone — “with a bit of tape-recorder thrown in around 16 when I discovered Stockhausen.” He says, “I’d wanted to play something for as long as I could remember and, although my father had been an amateur singer in shows in his earlier days, he rather discouraged it. Fortunately, my brother was as obsessed as me and we spurred each other on. He persuaded me to go on a jazz summer school in South London, run by a mixture of British players like Stan Tracey, Eddie Harvey, John Stevens, Paul Rutherford, and Mike Osborne. I was playing piano then and had some very useful lessons with Stan. I got into what was happening in London at that time in the early ’70s, by going to concerts, before I had heard more than a few notes of American jazz.”

John did a few college gigs with Habilis but hearing musicians like saxophonist John Surman, Stan Tracey and drummer Louis Moholo triggered an enthusiasm for jazz and he began playing in various groups. Some of these included pianist Chris Burn, or his brother Phil Butcher on double bass. Then he joined the Surrey University Jazz Orchestra. John was studying physics and has a Ph.D in theoretical physics — more precisely on charmed quarks — which, as far as I can understand, is something like extremely tiny particles (but not quite the smallest) within extremely tiny particles.

Butcher worked in Burn’s large Jazz Ensemble, winning a 1980 BBC Radio competition, and toured with London Contemporary Dance Theatre and New Arts Consort. At the same time, monthly concerts at the Workers’ Music Association in Notting Hill Gate were an important musical laboratory. In 1983, he formed a trio with improvisational guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant. The ACTA label was started by the group to release 1987’s Conceits. The following year, the group was augmented by the addition of drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti and became News from The Shed. In 1985, Butcher and Burn formed the London Improvising Ensemble, which became later Chris Burn’s Ensemble. During the 1980s, Butcher toured in Italy and Germany, and performed with a soprano quarter including with Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill. He also collaborated with trombonist Alan Tomlinson, and performed with Derek Bailey. In 1991, he formed Frisque Concordance with Georg Gräwe, which meant regular visits to Europe.

In London, Butcher joined the last version of the free flowing and eclectic improvisational band which was John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble. This deserves more than a mention here, as the SME was formed in the late 1960s for the enhancement of improvised music by John Stevens and saxophonist Trevor watts. The ensemble was seminal in the development of improvised music in the UK with players joining them from time to time, including Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, singer Maggie Nichols — and, of course, John Butcher. It underwent several transformations, with its last recording A New Distance being made in the mid 1990s.

“I left academia in 1981 after a Ph.D,” Butcher says, “and have since collaborated with hundreds of musicians in all kinds of situations and groups – amongst them Derek Bailey, John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble , The EX, Butch Morris’ London Skyscraper, Gerry Hemingway, Polwechsel, Peter Evans, John Russell, Gino Robair, Rhodri Davies, John Edwards, Toshi Nakamura, Paul Lovens, Eddie Prevost, Mark Sanders, Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Phil Minton, Andy Moor, Fred Frith, Okkyung Lee, Matthew Shipp. There’s a few bands I’ve also composed for, as well as playing in — such as “Penny Wands” for Futurist Intonarumori and tenor; and “Tarab Cut” for saxophone, a collaboration with drummer Mark Sander using improvised music layered over pre WW11 Sufi Arabic 87 rpm recordings. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has commissioned two larger scale pieces, “somethingtobesaid” for the John Butcher Group and “Isola” for Cranes and Freighters.”

I asked John to describe how he feels when performing and reactions from the audience. He replied, “Playing for an audience is one of the few situations where I actually feel in the moment, experiencing time whilst it is passing, connected to events. Regarding audiences, it runs from hatred to adulation.” I asked John what music he listened to. He replied, “Loads. At the moment I’m digging deep into Bob Dylan, having only come to get him in the last few years. I am also listening to a lot of Lester Young and Greek Rembetika. I hear a lot of live improvising by colleagues playing the same festivals, etc.” I asked John if he has a philosophy for life or his music. “I guess so, but it’s not available in any pithy form. For the musical side I’d suggest referring to my essay ‘Freedom and Sound: This time it’s Personal’ which tries to describe what I’ve learnt over these years. When I was younger and didn’t know much I had a lot of strong opinions, but now I find they’re all pretty fuzzy around the edges.”

John has written several essays over the years, some of them extensive. The one he refers to was commissioned for the publication Aspekte der Freien Improvisation in der Musik by Dieter A Nanz in 2011. In it, Butcher discusses many things, namely the freedom improvised music gives a player, the choices musicians make about the sounds they use for different concerts and the meaning of free improvisation itself. A couple of salient points extracted from the essay help to make Butcher’s take on improvisation and his playing a little clearer.

He discusses how “the freedom that comes with improvisation is actually the freedom to recognize and respect the uniqueness of each individual playing situation. Doing this entails making specific and restricting choices, intimately connected to thoughts about whom you are playing with (and what you do and don’t know about them), the acoustics of the environment and your own personal history. Most decisions relate to concerns that have evolved over many years but some are truly formed in the moment. Part of this means continually addressing the question of how to keep your own musical personality without bringing too fixed an agenda to each performance — how to get the right balance between playing what you know and what you don’t yet know.

“I’ve found that many practical ideas have first appeared comparatively spontaneously, through trying to forget that I’m playing a saxophone and instead thinking ‘what sound and contribution do I want to make at this point in the music?’” he adds. “All of this leads to the store of ideas and memories one draws upon, and anything that might prove workable in the longer term has usually accrued in small increments. Slowly, the pieces come together. Big ideas are of little value in improvisation.”

He goes on to say, “The special value of being willing to change your mind during an actual performance is intrinsic to improvisation. Almost unconsciously you find yourself engaging with things you hadn’t expected, hadn’t planned. It’s always exciting when the music arrives in a place that no single player could have imagined, or instructed to happen, beforehand, even if this produces the awkward feeling of “if I’d known that was what I was going to do I’d have done it better. I do know that it’s often only when I’m improvising music that I feel like I’m really existing in the present.”

Regarding what influences his current music, Butcher adds: “What influences your music often isn’t other musical things, and you often don’t notice them ’til way after the event. One constant, though, is the effect of the people I play with, both positively and negatively.” John finds audiences differ around the world in their appreciation of his style of performing. “Audiences are just differently appreciative — and sometimes not — around the world. I can read the response of an Austrian audience better than a Japanese audience, for instance, but how do you compare what they’re feeling? That said, the Austrian Festivals in Nickelsdorf, Ulrichsberg and Wels have each been run for 30 years by amazing supporters of “new” music — and have built up very informed and passionate audiences.”

On stage, Butcher is very aware of those he plays with and the connection of the players with the audiences. He says, “It would make no sense if I wasn’t as aware as I possibly can be of the musicians I’m onstage with. We’re inventing by listening to each other. On a good night, the audience hears the ‘why’ of things happening – although any response or interpretation will be pretty subjective.”

Regarding the immediate and long term future, John says “I am looking forward to three performances of Tarab Cuts at the London Jazz Festival, Rio and Barcelona, and the two birthday shows at Café Oto. The Apophonics, featuring Gino Robair on energised surfaces and synth, Butcher on saxophones and John Edwards on double bass, is one of the bands I’m planning to tour with more in 2015. I’d also like to push further into the site-specific solo work I’ve been doing over the last few years in unusual and extreme acoustics.’ These are events where Butcher makes use of the vast emptiness of spaces. Since 2002, Butcher has been involved with projects designed to explore solo work specifically for large, unusual or especially characteristic acoustic spaces. Two recordings have been released from inside the giant Oya Satone Mountain in Utsonomiya, Japan and in 2006 Resonant Spaces was a project using sites in Scotland and the Orkney islands off the UK chosen for their extraordinary acoustics. In the same year, as mentioned earlier, Butcher played for Resonance FM in Oberhausen’s famous 200m gazometer, the results were released on CD in Geometry of Sentiment.

Butcher would not categorize his playing and regarding the reception in the UK, he comments, “In London the energy around Café Oto and the Vortex is good. Tarab Cuts sold out at the Arnolfini in Bristol in April, and now they’ve just lost most of their funding. So what does that tell us? Newcastle has been good lately. And Glasgow. Looks like there’s a bit of a gap in the middle …” As for the future of improvised music, John Butcher concludes, “I’ve no idea, but hopefully I’ll be there for a reasonable amount of it.”

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein