An intimate concert this, held in the basement of the London Review Bookshop, between two forceful individualists who have maintained an on/off relationship over the past fifteen years and five CDs as a duo or—as on Scrutables, which was recorded in 2000 with the late Derek Bailey—a trio.
There are clues to the idiosyncracy of Californian percussionist Gino Robair in the kit arrayed for his disposal: a tabletop assortment of toy motors, a smartphone with sound apps that Robair can feed through a small box of synth filters, a floor tom and snare drum, cymbal cut into distorted petals, and various sticks and brushes, and a tubular gong.
He begins the first set by dropping a toy caterpillar onto his drum head and allowing it to trundle around, giving off a vibrational buzz, impeded only by the cymbals that Robair pushes into the skins to set up a higher, corresponding resonance.
Local saxophonist John Butcher responds, mostly, on soprano and tenor horns, and sounds sometimes like Steve Lacy but mostly like no one but himself, constantly probing for consonant sound events, accidental or otherwise, to develop or extrapolate from.
After essaying some other relatively conventional tricks of extended percussion, such as applying motors to the kit drum’s frames or by turns brushing and abrading their skins with various objects, Robair began playing off, and then with a small wooden cable drum. After scraping it across the floor to produce a muffled grind he cast his eyes across the bookshop’s wares, briefly subjecting his first choice of hardback to a similat treatment but soon discarding after when another caught his eye. First he ripped off its protective wrapping, which he stuffed into the axle of the drum and tried, with little success, to agitate with one of his toy motors; then he began—to the vocal horror of the book lovers in the audience—to rip out a few pages and subject them to motorised inquisition. It’s OK though; in a defensive gesture Robair held up the book for inspection; it was a copy of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoires titled, now with irony, By His Own Rules.
Robair also tried stacking his tom and snare drums upside down with a toy motor trapped between skins, and took his mallets to the bookshop’s floor and shelves. The effects of all this activity were acoustically muted, and so primarily theatrical if relatively restrained by the anarchic standards of Han Bennink.
More successfully, Robair removed all but one of the legs from his floor tom in order to play it, cradled in his lap with his hands, like an oversized tambour. I got the sense that Butcher was rather nonplussed by it all, and he confirmed, in a brief chat during the break, that the physical theatre was unexpected departure from the duo’s previous practice.
Butcher has in the past recorded duos with Robair for which he attached motors to his saxophones, and at the start of the second set he did try playfully dropping a vibrating toy into the decapitated neck of his sax. But since there didn’t seem to be much mileage in that, the mouthpiece was soon reconnected. Butcher doesn’t really need to ham things up with any theatrics, as his whole approach to the horn is one of constant novelty. Whereas in other settings he riffs on the peculiar acoustics of the environment and/or PA, setting up sympathetic resonance, echoes or feedback (for more on which, see my review of his recent solo set at Cafe Oto), in a ‘dry’ acoustic such the one in this book-lined basement he’s obliged to focus on core techniques of mouthing and fingering. It’s still a constant marvel to watch and listen to him play though. He frequently took a selfless backseat to Robair’s percussive promptings, chiming in with plosive detonations or a complementary flutter or fluting of forced air, but also exploring longer, lyrical lines of inquiry when the opportunities naturally arose. Butcher very seldom, if ever draws on the familiar modes of the American Jazz tradition, preferring to find other, non-idiomatic ways to say things in his own vernacular.