Two sets of percussion duets, with British saxophonist John Butcher in the company of two very different Norwegian drummers. One is a new recording with Ståle Liavik Solberg, the other a reissue of a 2001 date with Paal Nilssen-Love.
The latter’s liner notes tell us that Nilssen-Love once took lessons from John Stevens, whose Spontaneous Music Ensemble was one of the very few even notionally rhythmic groupings Butcher engaged with. So although Nilssen-Love’s playing is typically emphatic and extremely energetic, and Solberg’s style is light and impressionistic he’s no less deft and empathetic, and the two sets aren’t as different as one might expect.
So Beautiful, It Starts To Rain (Clean Feed) was recorded by Butcher and Solberg at Cafe Oto in August 2015.
I know Solberg primarily for his association with guitarist John Russell, and as the rhythm partner of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm in Party Knüllers. He seems a pretty obvious match for Butcher, as he’s close if not as playful in spirit as one of the very few drummers with whom Butcher displays a close affinity, his percussion foil in The Apophonics, Gino Robair (cf. my review of their 2012 duo set at the London Review Bookshop).
“So Beautiful” exemplifies the Butcher/Solberg duo’s even-handedness, and it’s striking in its relaxedness. The saxophonist is fully in command here, moving from easy full-tone discourse to rasping reed kissing and popping to Solberg’s taut, dry attack.
The much longer (16:32) “It Starts” is more experimental, an economic discourse beginning with Butcher’s feathery electronic sonorities. He soon becomes throatier, but, besides the occasional flare-up – Solberg moving up through the gears, then easing back – there’s remarkably little tension with Solberg, who plays around his kit with a gestural busyness punctuated by silences and isolated hits. That is until, just over halfway through, Butcher starts circulating breath, producing flocking multiphonics, and the atmosphere is highly charged until normal relations are restored by a brittle but assured percussion solo.
On third and last cut “To Rain” the duo lean that bit harder into each other, so the atmosphere seems that bit more abrasive, but they actually give each other plenty of room for an economy of discourse to develop. At 6:00 there’s a watershed. Butcher plays a few terse solo phrases, and eventually Solberg counters with loose-limbed full kit percussion. But again they draw back, until all that remains for a while is the rasp of Butcher’s flecked spittle fizzing against metal.
Concentric (Clean Feed) first came out in 2006.
Butcher and Nilssen-Love met when Butcher played Oslo club Blå back in 1999, then paired up for a short tour of Scandinavia two years later. One Concentric cut dates from that 2001 date at Blå, three more from two nights later, across town at at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.
The set’s similarities to So Beautiful, It Starts To Rain are striking. Butcher bites harder, with more force and astringency, and Nilssen-Love is, as you’d expect, more hyperactive than Solberg, his attack more robust but similarly kinetic.
Set opener “Pipestone” is frictional. Nilssen-Love’s abrasive snare rips and taut tom-tom rains expand on Solberg’s sparer palette. Butcher’s upper-register trilling harsher and experimentation with feedback are more shrill than anything on the newer set.
“Mono Lake” begins into abstract terrain, then becomes combative, the duo at each other in flurries of aggression, and then settles, allowing Butcher to thread a twisting, serpentine solo course through a deluge of pointillist percussion. When Butcher gets throaty and assertive Nilssen-Love reins in his attack, and Butcher unleashes an assertive full-throated flurry of circulated breath: it’s the sort of standout moment the Solberg set lacks.
The relatively short “Point Lobos” has a satisfyingly abrasive first half (Nilssen-Love produces some wonderful resonances from metal percussion, while Butcher plays strangulated sustains in clarinet sonorities), and a second half of harsh, strikingly attenuated sounds.
Which leaves just that one piece from Blå, titled “The Stob”, a 17:57 cut, with Butcher on tenor sax, Nilssen-Love countering his bray with kick drum rumble, that comes close, at times, to the sort of aggression and ascension that free music aficionados might expect of a post-Coltrane-and-Ali sax/drums duet, but remains more various and more rewarding than anything in hock to precedent could be. Ten minutes in, Butcher plays one of his finest free-flowing solos on record, and another solo of sustained circular breathing of lung-punishing force. The marvel is, how musically he shapes its fluxion, and how responsive Nilssen-Love’s accompaniment is.
Of the two sets, then Butcher’s date with Solberg is the more settled and musical, while that with Nilssen-Love is the more expansive and freely dynamic. They complement each other well.
John Butcher soprano and tenor saxophone; Ståle Liavik Solberg and Paal Nilssen-Love drums, percussion.