There really isn’t a proper term to describe solo instrumental performance in an improvised context. Rare indeed is the musician who comes to a solo concert or recording with a “blank mind” (the late trombonist Paul Rutherford is one of few); rather, solo work can have the feel of language development (see Derek Bailey), sonic research, or compositional/structural refinement. Even if a musician isn’t involved in collective dialogue, there are still — to reference pianist Bill Evans — conversations with oneself. Like Bailey and Rutherford, saxophonist John Butcher is a stalwart figure in the English improvised music scene and studied with percussionist John Stevens (1940-1994), nominal leader of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. His work explores frequency and volume through close-mic’ing and spatial interaction, though at heart Butcher’s music is gutsy and focused on what the instrument and player can do, rather than solely devoted to phenomenological processes. His music echoes that of forebears like Coleman Hawkins, Steve Lacy, and Albert Ayler, as even if the tenor and soprano saxophones are “tools,” their legacies are strong and clear through performances (unaccompanied or collaborative) and recordings.
Bell Trove Spools is an entirely solo set, split between Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room and Houston’s Richmond Hall, the latter an arm of the Menil Collection housing the fluorescent light pieces of Dan Flavin. Butcher has recorded a number of discs Stateside and is a frequent visitor to Texas venues and art spaces, so despite the initial surprise of his name on a Northern Spy CD, it’s not unprecedented. The first five pieces are devoted to the tenor and immediately get down to the business of establishing Butcher’s relationship with axe and confines. Richmond Hall is a long and fairly low space, and the saxophonist gradually unfurls long and burred lines in a deliberate fashion on “A Place to Start,” moving from shapely harmonic purrs to gutsy and terse dips in a way that plays off the Texas saxophone tradition (as the late Fort Worth reedman Prince Lasha put it, “coming up from the ground and out through the bell”) in ricocheting swagger. At about four and a half minutes, Butcher digs in a flinty heel and works an almost bluesy fragment. Perhaps it’s in homage to another tenorman sharing the bill that night, Joe McPhee, whose “Knox” seems to be in the air.
“Willow Shiver” is electro-acoustic, with amplification and feedback encountering tongue-slaps and pad manipulation. The piece hinges on two different physical resources: the demarked shapes that result from the proximity between two sound sources (feedback) and the rhythmic, human nature of Butcher’s playing. The lengthy “Perfume Screech” is searing and robust with nearly romantic abstraction at its outset, hinting at the Latinate grit of Gato Barbieri before taking turns into floor-shaking resonance and fluttering, high-pitched multiphonics, as the saxophonist strolls about the room. Eventually pushing up against the microphones with slaps and kisses, Butcher sort of runs a gamut, though not in a way that is diffuse.
The Issue Project Room solos find Butcher on the soprano, clenched and skirling with fluffs, chirps, and piercing lines that are aptly titled “Darts.” On “Third Dart,” Butcher’s puckered phrases become a stately clamber, wheeling and occasionally ducky but limned with unsettling echoes. “Fourth Dart” is a feat, quickly arriving at circular-breathed redoubles and phased, sectional motion that would be minimalist if it weren’t so damn maximal. Extraordinarily powerful, Butcher’s soprano may test the limits of one’s ear to make sense of the close and complex relationships that are put forth, but there’s an undeniable emotional depth and sheer beauty in his work that supersedes technicality and concept. That’s true of all solo improvisers whose art has become lasting; terms like “research” and “development” may certainly be relevant, but it takes real guts to put oneself out there with only the support of intuition, horn, and the surrounding space. Bell Trove Spools is a great place to start with John Butcher’s discography, but it’s also a recording that will stand out as a high point for those solidly versed in his explorations.