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Sax Appeal 

Experimental musician John Butcher wields some of the most evocative, ear-bending effects around

Wednesday, Jun 13 2001
"Wind experimentation has got a bad reputation," says U.K. saxophonist John Butcher, "from players who just demonstrate novel sounds, rather than put them to use. ... I always try to use this kind of material." He illustrates his point on a new solo album, Fixations (14). Although Butcher wields some of the most evocative, ear-bending effects around -- from multiphonics (overtones and overlapping sound shapes) to circular breathing (an uninterrupted cycle of simultaneous inhalation and exhalation) -- these extended techniques fuel each track's distinct compositional character.

On "Almost New," for example, the saxophonist first lets the natural ebb and flow of the delicate, melodic framework develop. Then he layers luminous multiphonics on top of the melody. This creates a hypnotic effect as the notes come together and break apart. It's a complex approach to musicmaking, one more often employed by guitarists or violinists than saxophonists -- it's almost impossible to make a horn sound more than one note at a time. But Butcher's all about pushing the envelope. As he says, "You've got to go further."

On more than three dozen albums in the past 20 years, he has sought to broaden the sonic possibilities of his horn. Yet his improvs are surprisingly grounded. On "Robustica," Butcher uses his trademark techniques to create a sustained resonance that calls to mind animal spirits dancing around a desert fire. The piece's guttural vibrations and undulating trance elements echo the ancient Australian didgeridoo. No stranger to world music, Butcher can also mirror with his sax the peculiar timbres of Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and Tibetan bass trumpet. But the connections are less an example of cultural appropriation than a reflection of the artist's borderless aesthetic. To put it plainly, Butcher's open-ended agenda is to tap into "everything a vibrating column of air is capable of."

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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