Fred Frith and John Butcher seem an obvious pairing. It’s odd that they’ve not recorded together before.
Butcher is a saxophonist whose playing owes practically nothing to American jazz of any era, and not much to European ‘free jazz’ either. In fact, he doesn’t play jazz at all, except occasionally by way of allusion. He might throw some ‘jazz’ inflections into the mix, that is, if it might not be an obvious thing to do. He’s a thoughtful, analytical practitioner, and often seems primarily concerned with the potentiality of his instrument, how it might sound in a given environment, or in a flow of exchange with other instrumentalists.
Frith’s playing is equally beyond categorisation, although the guitarist’s work as a founder member of Henry Cow primed him for a multi-faceted career in the nebulous ‘arena’ of avant-rock, and he can be heard in a relatively orthodox power trio context, alongside Bill Laswell and Charles Hayward, in Massacre. A better pointer to the current duet is his on/off collaboration with John Zorn, particularly their duo recordings, of which the most recent and most pertinent is Late Recordings (Tzadik, 2010). The exploratory and sometimes rebarbative nature of that album picks up a thread running back to Frith’s 1974 album Guitar Solos, which comprised live improvisations, no overdubs, on a guitar with preparations.
Frith and Butcher recorded The Natural Order (Northern Spy) in 2009 under similar constraints (again, no overdubbing), in a single studio session. Its ten tracks are sequenced in the order of their creation.
“That Unforgettable Line” begins with a gritty bloom of feedback accompanied by grainy saxophonic trilling, before getting properly grimy. It’s a short, probing performance, in which Frith moves from broad, synth-esque tonalities to narrower, tapped-on string sounds, and Butcher punctuates riffles of quivering vibrato with hoarser soundings. “Delirium Perhaps” reprises some of the same territory, and expands upon it, with both players becoming more aggressive.
Ar first, “Dance First, Think Later” is quieter. Frith plays in darting but carefully modulated gestures, while Butcher focuses on breath sounds. But Frith breaks that mood with sudden aggression, creating looping mechanical noise, and Butcher responds in kind, matching the deep swells of Frith’s effects with broad purrs of low-end tenor saxophony.
“Faults of His Feet” is more spacious. Frith takes a percussive approach, playing preparations, and Butcher, on soprano sax, flits among those plosive soundings, sometimes fluttering skyward as if alarmed by peaks of turbulence. Ultimately, however, their lines flock and subside together, and the ending is unexpectedly tender.
“Colour of an Eye Half Seen”—at 13:30, this is comfortably the album’s longest piece—is a maculate tapestry of small soundings, from which the duo extrapolate parallel lines of investigation. At one point Frith essays a slippery thread of melodic implication, then latches onto one of the songlike, deep-throated tenor licks that occasionally flow from Butcher’s looping interrogations of pattern, and lets slip a power surge. The piece eventually settles into a wash of harsh, remarkable sonorities; astringent, yet oddly luminescent.
Silences between notes make a return on “Turning Away in Time”. Frith plays some open strings and lays off the effects altogether, and Butcher’s soprano seems to purr with pleasure. This clears the palette for the well-named “The Welts, the Squeaks, the Belts, the Shrieks”. Not particularly abrasive, it is however played staccato, in rather frantic, compressed clusters of sound. (Frith’s playing here reminded me of his fabulous bass work on Heretic (1992), Naked City’s album of ad hoc duo and trio improvisations.)
If Frith has maybe set the tone for much of the session so far, it’s only his attempts to match the flocking patterns of Butcher’s saxophony on “Butterflies of Vertigo” that makes me think so. After this, the saxophonist restricts himself to breath sounds for much of “Be Again, Be Again”, the duo exploring raw sound before a relatively musical coda that nonetheless amplifies the sonic rawness.
Last up, “Accommodating the Mess” begins with Frith strumming mechanically, then, after a couple of mood-swing switchbacks, throbs ominously as that strumming morphs into irruptive scrabbling. Dialled-in human voices also intrude. Butcher’s playing mirrors the contours of Frith’s progressions, always amplifying the harshness quotient. This is what he does so superbly: gets right into the grain of the sound at any given moment, and enriches it.
Instrumental music that’s the antithesis of ostentatious virtuosity, where the aim is a merger of identities, a flux and transfer of properties…well, you know if this is for you. But it’s exemplary music of its kind.
Fred Frith electric guitar; John Butcher soprano and tenor saxophones.
Fushitsusha, John Butcher and Temperatures at St John at Hackney, October 2012.
Fred Frith with Christian Marclay, John Edwards, and Mark Sanders at Cafe Oto, July 2012.
Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Evan Parker, Tony Marsh, John Edwards, John Butcher / The Apophonics – Quintet, Sextet, Duos / On Air.
John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, John Tilbury – Exta.
Buy The Natural Order direct from Northern Spy.