For the second time on record, saxophonist John Butcher and modular synth player Thomas Lehn draw something unexpected and exceptional from a singularly gifted pianist. Last time around it was John Tilbury, this time it’s Mathew Shipp.
Butcher and Lehn were obviously in their element with AMM pianist Tilbury on 2010’s Exta, a set of dark and caliginous brooding balanced by moments of purely musical refinement on which Tilbury tuned into his partners to radically transformative effect.
Butcher first played with Matthew Shipp when the American pianist requested his company during a London residency. I noted at the time that the two weren’t obviously well matched⏤Shipp’s playing is typically bold and expressively dramatic, while Butcher’s focus is more on the grain of timbre and texture⏤and their duet was a qualified if “heroically compelling” success. Four years on they’ve achieved a much more satisfying accommodation and boom!, Tangle (Fataka) is the standout album of 2016 in my book, across the board.
The 43 minute set was recorded live at Cafe Oto in February 2014. Shipp gets the main set⏤titled “Cluster”, and considerately divided into three indexes⏤underway with uncharacteristically bright and rhapsodic style while Lehn conjures up a vinyl loop musical heartbeat. As this underpinning dissolves into abstraction Shipp sounds increasingly unrecognisable, playing brittle single note patterns that Lehn refracts through processing. Butcher joins in, wrapping his partners’ playing in a warm burr, then becomes agitated as Lehn turns to gameboy bleeps and Shipp essays some jaunty abstractions, then slips into a briefly bouncy vamp that soon grows martial and insistent. Butcher,meanwhile, ranges through liquid streams of circular breathing to hollow bell rasping and expressionistic popping and percussive sounds.
After eight minutes of flux Shipp relaxes, and the performance slips into calmer waters. Butcher’s careful feedback and Lehn’s raw signal noise create a muzzy aural smog, but before Shipp re-enters, playing now in a boldly, fluently lyrical style I’ve never heard from him before, Butcher plays a superb, echoic tenor solo.
When Lehn runs interruption with surging interjections of hiss and crackle, the others’ rejoinder is a stream of fast, concise phrases that they stretch out, pushing the bounds. Lehn plays along, tweaking the others’ inputs and channels their energy into a more subdued passage of synth-ghosted pianism. This is unexpectedly classicist, but soon contorts into a noise duet behind a garrulously extrovert passage of saxophony from Butcher.
The ideas are flowing thick and fast, with everyone at the top of their game and perfectly in sync. There’s a raw vitality to the performance, and the music is unabashed and direct in channeling relatively conventional lyricism: Tangle is supremely listenable, and should grab listeners who usually find improvised free music elusive, as well as devotees like me who will lap this up.
“Cluster”‘s third index is more settled at first, despite Shipp’s waves of ominously stentorian lower-register ostinato as Lehn detonates charge after charge of vivifying electroacoustic energy. Lehn then shifts his focus to subtle textures and background processes, while Shipp and Butcher re-combine with renewed zeal. Shipp vents his vigour in compulsive, percussive release while Butcher rips into some ferocious saxophony, sounding not unlike John Zorn in extremis, rocking up to a common elevated plateau for a vigorously dynamic three-way improv with a beautifully modulated resolution.
Presumably hyped at this point, the trio summon more energy for a six minute encore, “Tiefenschärfe”, which has Butcher on point, on tenor sax, picking his way methodically through Lehn’s synth gloaming. When Shipp takes over he plays curt, aphoristic repetitions that Lehn gleefully diffracts through processing and primps with glitch. Butcher comes back in raw-toned on close-mic’d soprano before an alchemical conclusion.
This is thrilling, peerless stuff, played with vivacity and animation. I was at the concert, and in my diary I jotted down a rare post-gig note that reads simply “!!!! f******k”, but I’d forgotten it was quite this good. Kudos to Butcher, Lehn and Shipp for their mix, and to all involved.
John Butcher saxophone, feedback; Thomas Lehn analogue synthesizer; Matthew Shipp piano.
Buy Tangle direct from Fataka.