In 2007, I had two conversations with John Butcher, the improvising saxophonist. The first discussion was during the annual February Time Flies, and the second was during the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Part One covers biographical aspects of his work and his choices in collaborators. Part Two covers his approach to improvisation, his participation as a faculty member of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute and his work in a rather amazing trio with Dylan van der Schyff and Torsten Müller. Butcher is a calm, focused, and modest man who inevitably speaks in soft tones. One is always struck by his encyclopedic knowledge of not only the improvisational scene but of the great saxophonists of jazz.
Laurence Svirchev: Can you tell me about your approach to improvisation in the context of who you play with, and your participation as a faculty member in the Vancouver Creative Music Institute.
John Butcher: Improvisation is a very existential activity. It doesn’t make much sense outside the actual practice of doing it. If you come to an improvisation with too formalized a scheme of what you want to do, it’s likely to be an unsuccessful improvisation. At this stage I can say that the most valuable thing for me as an improviser is the accumulated experience of 25 years of improvising. Occasionally people make comments that I have a comparatively idiosyncratic style. It makes me think that my own musical interests are coming out through my saxophone playing, but I do think that I keep myself very flexible to respond in different ways with different people. I don’t think I could come along and just super-impose my voice in the music. I try to make my contribution as much as possible unique to the particular situation.
On the other hand. I choose playing with some people and not with others. There are others I could improvise with, in theory, but their interests are diverse from mine. That probably means I would have to alter the way I play too much.
This has some relevance to the teaching situation. Students or beginning improvisers tend to gravitate towards an area of familiarity. They might not feel happy unless they are sitting on a d-minor chord and it’s moving along in pulse.
I like to find a way of playing containing, ideally, things that I hadn’t imagined before the concert. The danger is if you are not prepared to change your way of thinking in the improvisation, it will fall flat. You may go with one intention. Something happens in the music which means you have to change and revamp what you are thinking and doing. That’s when the improvisation comes alive. That is a difference between a stiff meeting of often very good players where nothing is really happening, and a meeting between players who are trying to make a unique piece of music for that moment.
LS: Could you examine an experience, say the other night with Dylan and Torsten?
JB: Dylan and Torsten, now that’s an improvising situation I like very much, because, I think, we were attempting a music with three equal voices. Although on paper sax, bass, and drums looks like a traditional lineup, and clearly there are many models to follow in that situation, I didn’t want to play like a soloist all the time. When I did play like a soloist, I made a very definite decision to do that, step in and take that role. The rest of the time was operating as a three-way interactive exchange.
This is a rather corny analogy. You’re in the boat, and you have three hands on the tiller. Anyone of us can give a little push the others recognize this, and they can go with it to change the direction of the music, they can fight against it, if they wish to. There is always the suggestion that all three of us are responding to the suggestions, whether they are agreeing to go with them or disagreeing to go with them.
LS: Depending on the wind and wave motion, and the relative pressure of the hands on the tiller, you could be going to someplace really interesting, or you could even be going around in circles.
JB: Yes, if you are all in agreement all the time it’s not so interesting, or if one person is taking command all the time it’s not so interesting. Too much consensus can be as irritating as mixing people who just can’t play together.
LS: I didn’t even think of the formation of saxophone, bass and drums as a classical grouping. I just heard some very interesting musicians making very high level music.
JB: I’m very happy to hear the world has moved onto that now, through these years of challenges. You don’t challenge things just for the sake it.
LS: Jazz soloists often say, “Let’s play some standard like ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ or ‘Love for Sale’ and we’ll improvise around it.” What’s the difference between that kind of improvisation, and the improvisation you do?
JB: It’s a difference of degree. In a way you have answered your own question because they have agreed to play ‘Love for Sale.’ They have restricted their choices and they have a framework within which to improvise. That said, we are now sitting in the context of forty years of free improvisation. Clearly, this has it’s own clichés, and idioms, styles and it is never truly free.
I find it most interesting that what one recognizes in experienced practitioners is their personalities. It is not the freedom aspect that is so important, it’s the imagination and personality they bring to the music. The improvisation I’m involved with, there is a certain reluctance to refer to other forms of music. “Love For Sale” is better played if everybody knows the chord changes and has agreed on it ahead of time and is familiar with the theme. It is clear, for example, that when you hear Lester Young solo, he is improvising all the time. His solos on alternate takes of a composition are all different. But he’s got his licks, and his lines, and his style, and that certainly is part of all improvisation.
Jazz was one of the cultures that teaches us how to improvise. Though, I think that you’ll hear more improvisation from Lester Young than many of the tenor players who come out of the jazz schools now. The working conditions within which he made his music and the cultures he came from needed improvising. The bands often weren’t rehearsing, they were on the road most of the time. With Count Basie, they often didn’t have full band parts. It was a working culture that created that music.
If I have any connection to jazz, I think it’s through being fortunate enough to be part of a working culture that creates the music. In my case it was to begin with the English improvising music scene and now with the world-wide improvising scene. You learn through doing it with people in the different situations you are in. I’ve probably learned more from the people I’ve played with than the people I’ve just listened to.
LS: In the time you’ve been doing this, how has the culture of improvisation changed?
JB: At the time things are happening, one’s not really aware of it. Until recently I thought that coming from an English background, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, and basically middle class, I’d never felt part of an active musical culture. There was music around, but there was no real tradition I could be a part of. But looking back over thirty years, I recognize the accumulated effect of all the LPs I listened to, and just going out in London when I was eighteen and listening, for example, to the South Africans who had come over, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo. I was listening to people like that before I even heard much American jazz.
That was my alternative to coming from a clear musical culture, and over the years it built up. Although I had been improvising and experimenting with friends like myself, then I discovered there were people like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey who had started off down that road years earlier. They were a great example of what a “Pandora’s Box of Possibilities” had been opened [laughs]. There was this interesting mixture of new sonic worlds, new ways of learning to interact, the breaking of instrumental hierarchies, the breaking of promotional practices. Musicians were taking control or their own concerts, and record labels, not presenting a “product.”
Of course musicians have ambitions and want people to come to their concerts. But the idea was not to present “our product, which we are now going to demonstrate to you,” but they were going out and making music on the spot, with very strong voices.
Then Derek Bailey, through the Company, started bringing American musicians like George Lewis, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton. In England we had a chance to hear their work. To some extent within American jazz culture, they were fringe artists at that time. They were responding to some similar drives that European artists were responding to, but obviously they had their own perspectives. Improvisation held a powerful message then. Some people stayed in it for only a short time. Others stay for a lifetime.
LS: You made an interesting point about the Blue Notes and others from South Africa. How did that affect the British scene?
But how does the improvising scene change? Very naturally there are now musicians who are searching out ways of doing things, often by rejecting what people of my generation have done. It’s a traditional route. You can move forward as much through rejecting stuff as you can by making your own new discoveries. Maybe one needs the other.
LS: Let’s talk about the teaching, the Vancouver Creative Music Institute
JB: This is the third year of the school. Coastal Jazz and Blues and the community college combined together to utilize what some of the musicians for the festival will be able to bring to a teaching situation. Francois Houle is the artistic director.
The students were very wide ranging. A few with quite a bit of experience like Arthur Bull, whose brother was one of the founders of the Western Front. He played with Bill Smith in the 1980s in England [one of the founders of Coda Magazine]. He came for the opportunity to play with people. There are quite a few young guitarists who have come out of Indie and Noise things. A few would say things like, “I played in Indie bands, and then I heard this improvisation stuff at the Jazz Festival and really liked it!
So many have been turned on by hearing Han Bennink or whoever at the Jazz Festival. There are others from the jazz and classical side of things. The way I look at it is that it evolves into dealing with the psychology of the students. I don’t go into the class with a scheme. You have to assess it in terms of who is taking part. I don’t try to tell them ‘Play like this of like that’. Instead I try to present them with scenarios they may not have come across before, ways of relating to other musicians they may not have come across before, approaches to their instruments they may not have come across before.
There was one guy is interested in chromatic extensions of chords, he likes playing chord sequences. So I didn’t say, “Well, you can’t do that, you’ve got to work with abstract sound.” What I did was get the rest of the group to, rather than sit on a chord sequence for him, we made textural, abstract sounds for him to work on top with his very conventional way of playing. That enabled him to improvise and get some confidence with playing in an unfamiliar situation.
There was a guy there whose playing skills were not that high, but he could make some interesting sounds on his guitar. With him we did a noise piece, but I got the group to start and stop, to play the noise in a phrase. Then there’s silence after it. A lot of these pieces just go on and on because people don’t know how to give it shape or form.
I might say to a six-piece group, ‘Only two people are allowed to play at any one time.’ That’s creates a listening exercise because someone has to listen and step in and move out of the music. I do that because some people feel they can just go on in their little world by themselves. So there are actually lots of strategies depending on who is in the classes.
LS: School is supposed to provoke the learning and challenging part.
JB: I would never get into a teaching method like “This is how Derek Bailey played the guitar, you should try working on these kind of harmonics and intervals.” There was a woman playing a Chinese two-stringed instrument, the èr hú. It’s mainly built to play long tones. It has a bow which is continuously affixed to it. So we worked on playing short sounds, which is a technique she hardly uses. Even though she is very accomplished player, she found that difficult. That might be something that feeds into her playing later on.
The saxophone is something of a musical typewriter for punching out notes. If I want to play an accompanying role, I might work with some percussive things on the saxophone, to create gaps or holes through which you can hear the other instruments. I might say play your trumpet so quietly and transparently that you can hear everything this quiet violinist who is playing with you is doing. That means the trumpet player can’t just play their favorite lines and licks with the beautiful embouchure and tone they have developed because it will just cover up the sounds of the violin.
LS: That’s subversive!
JB: There’s a bit of that going on! It’s about presenting possibilities to people, not telling them what to do.
LS: I noticed in both your concerts in February in June. You have a device in which you are breathing by the reed, not blowing per se and perhaps adjusting the keys. It’s really loud.
JB: Was this with a microphone?
LS: You had a microphone during the Time Flies series.
JB: It could be a number of techniques. Just with air, you can make a lot of resonance in the saxophone tube without the reed vibrating. I can work with – it sounds disgusting – saliva trapped between the reed and the roof of the mouth-piece as if you were blowing air though a straw in a bowl of water, and with the key-work, you can change the colors of the sound.
You can work with inhaling instead of exhaling. Sometimes you get a tone because if lips are fluttering like a trumpet player’s vibrate. With a microphone I can produce feedback and gently control it with the keys. If you set up some little sound by pad-clicking, and have the microphone very close to the bell of the saxophone, that sets the air vibrating in the saxophone, that small sound goes in the microphone, comes out the loudspeaker, the microphone picks up that sound from the loudspeaker, it becomes amplified again and it builds up into a tone. And you can change the tone by changing the fingering of the saxophone. And that technique can be quite interesting because you don’t even have to have the instrument in your mouth.
It’s hard to control, but I like that because I’ve spent a long time exploring the nooks and crannies of the acoustic saxophone, which I now know quite well. But with this technique, I never quite know what is going to happen when I do it. You just have to use your ears. It will be different in every room. By key-work and the distance between the bell of the saxophone and the microphone, you try and control the sounds. It’s a bit like sculpting with air.