The long shadow that Evan Parker casts over free improvising saxophonists falls hardly at all on John Butcher. He's beholden to no-one. Possessed of a formidable technique and seemingly tireless invention, he tends to get the best out of any playing situation. Such is the case with Way Out Northwest, which finds him in trio with double bassist Torsten Müller and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. In 2000, Butcher recorded a duo CD with van der Schyff, Points, Snags and Windings (Meniscus). That was a strong outing, and Way Out Northwest, recorded in 2007 at the Western Front, Vancouver, is a worthy successor.
After tentatively sounding each other out for the first minute of the set, the players mesh and the music immediately takes flight. Butcher, on soprano saxophone, changes tack frequently, moving at speed from chittering sounds and broken phrases to bent tones and the sound of pressurised air in the body of the instrument. Müller and van der Schyff are with him all the way, engaging in mutually creative interplay. The speed, direction and dynamics of the music shift constantly, and the key pleasure to be had in listening to it is in the small details, which drive and inform the music every bit as much as the bolder, louder gestures that often precipitate a major change of direction.
The tracks featuring Butcher on tenor saxophone are generally brawnier and more forceful than those on which he plays soprano, but the range of expression they contain is just as great. Highlights include the quiet opening measures of "Taktgebertendenz", in which the repetitive patterns that occasionally cohere sound like distant and rather ramshackle machinery, and the brief concluding track over which the spirit of Steve Lacy seems to hover.
© Brian Marley - WIRE 290
The title cheekily invites you to ask how different this is from Sonny Rollin's Way Out West, which was recorded exactly 50 years earlier with the piano-less trio of Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. Interestingly, whereas the Rollins record drifted into a kind of arch cleverness, this encounter - no reading of "I'm An Old Cowhand", sadly! - manages a strong sense of playfulness and delight even within the confines of an estimably serious performance.
Even in a setting that calls for, or invites, a more linear approach than his prevailing concerns, saxophonist Butcher sounds absolutely in command of his language, which is increasingly free and airy, heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
© Brian Morton - WIRE 290