Clifford Allen, Ni Kantu (2011/25/10)

While it doesn’t always do contemporary music good to compare individual works, which have emerged from and created their own present context, sometimes a nod to forebears does illuminate the broader environment. Though Empire, a meeting between British saxophonist John Butcher and the Portuguese trio of pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino and percussionist Gabriel Ferrandini (RED), certainly has enough of an improvisational pedigree to need no introduction, there is a strong connection with another intra-continental free jazz meeting some forty-two years earlier. When saxophonist Evan Parker met up with the Pierre Favre Trio (featuring pianist Irene Schweizer and bassist Peter Kowald) in 1968 for a Wergo Jazz recording, the results were monumental. RED Trio draws from numerous sources of its own devising, but upending the piano trio to include a palette drawn from decidedly non-traditional pianism, as well as a range of diffuse tonal colors, has quite a strong tradition in European free improvisation. Furthermore, Butcher has perfected his art of multiphonics, resonance, percussive sound and close-miking to a degree that the skirling plate-shifts of Parker seem a distant animal, but from the standpoint of atomistic variation, there is still a relevant historical path to be drawn between the two musicians.

Historical reference points serve here only to strengthen Empire’s place among its company – in other words, it’s a hell of a record. The first of the LP’s three improvisations, “Sustained,” finds Butcher on tenor in clicking harmonics and goading purrs, short but full arrays of verbosity mirrored by rattled, linear phrases from piano, bass and drums. Faustino and Ferrandini maintain a surprising degree of kinetic energy and, while their playing isn’t “time” it does maintain a very direct pulse that’s athletic without being top-heavy. Muting the piano strings, Pinheiro’s flights are concise and warm while, like Butcher, being internally reflective. In other words, he organizes small sounds that mirror themselves, seeming microscopic while being tonally ambiguous enough to propose a range of improvisational possibilities. Switching to soprano for “Pachyderm,” Butcher swings between concentrated burrs and progressive lines as the ensemble builds from collective subtonal growls to quilt of angled and relative flights. The latter portion is spare, woodwind gurgles and low, loose string noises supplanted by the sawing whine of gongs and piano strings. The lengthy title piece, which takes up all of the LP’s second side, is an exercise in tension that barely goes released, Pinheiro muting his instrument in a taut, unwavering bedrock as arco bass and cymbals present a controlled surrounding thrash, Butcher’s flutter building into sinewy metallic flakes. To those who’ve only experienced the saxophonist in what could be termed “sonic research” mode rather than flat-out blowing, Empire is a great opportunity to hear him buoyed and engaging a fine trio of comrades while bearing down with impassioned split-toned shouts. “Playing” and “investigating” are, of course, two sides of the same equation that are often closer than they might seem at first blush.

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