The Apophonics unites the occasional duo of John Butcher (saxophones) and Gino Robair (percussion), with double bassist John Edwards. This is the trio’s recording debut. The title On Air acknowledges the album’s genesis in a May 2012 studio session, which was originally broadcast on BBC Radio’s ‘Jazz on 3’.
The night before, on 01 May 2012, I saw Butcher and Robair in an intimate and playful duo performance at The London Review Bookshop. A little of that playfulness carries over to the On Air session, but it begins in fairly conventionally energetic improv mode. Butcher plays a more direct role in this context, extrapolating variations from a strong melodic current in gruffly burred tones, while Robair and Edwards play in short, concentrated flurries of activity.
The trio’s initial impetus breaks down just five minutes into the 36-minute “Fires were Set”, though the resultant patterns of interaction remain consistent, if compacted. Butcher draws his lines out by recycling breath through the horn, pulling bass and percussion into ever knottier patterns. But then something gives, and Butcher and Robair alternately drop out, leaving Edwards to thread their performance with frictional bowing. For a while thereafter silence encroaches.
Butcher restricts his playing to bird-call abstractions while Robair makes recourse to peripheral percussion ‘toys’ – small motors used to energise cymbals and other surfaces – and simpatico noises sourced from a basic synthesizer. A burst of nimble, jazzy fretwork action from Edwards provokes a flurry of activity, momentarily riveting the listener’s attention, but the music soon reverts to attentive near-silence, lapped by gentle waves of now bowed and becalmed bass. Butcher essays some jazzy licks on soprano, prompting a sportive response, but once again the trio withdraw into close-listening, skittering interplay. These extended downtempo passages become more sombre as the piece nears its conclusion, with bass and sax becoming particularly doleful.
While the Apophonics’ music might be playful at times, theirs is a studied form of playful: antic at times but restrainedly so; boisterous at its most muscular, but almost never uninhibitedly exuberant.
“Met by Moonlight” (07:51) is as atmospheric as its title suggests. Robair applies echo to timpani flourishes on gongs and scraped cymbals, while Butcher produces tinder-dry breath sounds and Edwards produces arco rubbings, all coalescing at length into a single twine. It’s a superbly coherent piece.
“London Melodies” (04:39) sees Edwards still bowing, and Butcher playing subtle extrapoations from an implicit melody while Robair plays marimba sounds. Perhaps those sounds are sourced from an a actual marimba, but as the mood turns vaguely frenetic they also hint at processed tabla and gamelan sounds, so they are probably from a synth. The sparing use of synth patches Apophonics into the soundworld of Black Top, whose debut album I reviewed recently, and I can imagine how extraordinarily that collaboration might pan out. Here’s hoping.
Apophony, if you were wondering, is the alternation of vowel sounds in the expression of related words, as in: sing, sang, sung, song.
John Butcher saxophones; Gino Robair energised surfaces & synth; John Edwards double bass.
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John Butcher and Gino Robair at The London Review Bookshop, 01 May 2012.