Live review: Lee Butcher Sanders, mac Birmingham – 03/02/16

The fortnightly Fizzle dedicated to improvised music has been displaced from its regular venue in Digbeth’s Lamp Tavern. Tonight Birmingham’s musical adventures congregate in the mac’s Hexagon room, with the regular audience from the jazz scene bulked out by folks from the noise and industrial scenes too. This is due to the calibre of tonight’s performers, even owing to the fact that the cellist, Okkyung Lee, opened for doom giants Swans last year. The unique combination of Lee, Butcher and Sanders, their first time together as a trio, is a credit to Tony Dudley-Evans of TDE Promotions and marks a refreshing point of difference from the all too frequent white-male jazz format.

Birmingham’s Mark Sanders, a drummer of incredible versatility, is joined by London-based John Butcher, a saxophonist with fearless, boundary-pushing technique. Completing the bill is South Korean cellist, Okkyung Lee, based in New York, whose style characterises a point of ‘unlearning’ for classically trained cellists, freeing up the possibilities for her instrument to uncover more abrasive sounds and textures. On the whole, the concept for tonight’s gig is presented via extended technique, in a series of Fizzle events that explore the relationship between improvisation and composition.

Experimental improvised music tends to falter inside the trappings of its own genre, relapsing into contradictory formations where expectations are perpetually reaffirmed. It shows inherent restrictions to the idea of ‘free’ improvisation, where the limitations of each instrument demarcate impositions upon the seemingly arbitrary wanderings of sound and texture. Possibilities become predictable, and musical meanderings turn into a loss of conscious control. At times this calls implicitly for a re-acknowledgement of structure. Throwing some musicians together and expecting a rapport to hit off is rare indeed; the point is to reach an interrelation of instruments in a genre that favours the indulgence of the solo artist.

But tonight the rapport is ever-present between Lee, Butcher and Sanders as they seek the dynamics between sound and silence, pushing the limits of their instruments while giving each other equal space to speak. Butcher’s saxophone strains for the altissimo, notes higher in pitch than traditionally accepted on the sax. Amazingly, he succeeds, sustaining the note with circular breathing that transforms his throat into the image of a billowing bullfrog. Exploring their instruments’ potential triggers a provocation into the extents of our human capacities. With Butcher, the saxophone is an extension of his human form. Lee pets her cello like a cat at one moment, but turns it into an instrument of violence at another, with soft strokes and cutting blows exercised according to the demands of rhythm or discord. The bow almost shatters under the weight of her grip, handling the bow with a primitive fist that marks a rejection of classical techniques. The cello reverberates with a sustained crunch, like the amplified sound of a clenched jaw.

While the saxophone pops and whistles, Sanders consciously selects his next move from a host of equipment splayed like a set of paintbrushes across a tabletop. Whereas an orthodox drummer is tied to the responsibilities of rhythm, he’s most of all interested in the sonic capacities of the kit. Like an orchestral percussionist he stands above it, going beyond the conventions of a drummer, while setting ever-changing horizons for sonic textures to be discovered. He picks up on Lee’s bowing and chooses a similar style, a bow, small and shaped like a meat-chopper, to carve out sharp, high-pitched waves from the cymbals. At another moment he chooses a tiny mechanical toy crocodile and places it on top of the drum’s skin, eliciting a particular vibration that is self-perpetuating in motion. The peculiar sounds allow the mind to wander, and thoughts fly around without restraint. While improvisation has its own weaknesses, the strong sight and sound of three musicians totally in control of their instruments is a strong example of what the established Birmingham improvisation scene is doing best. It has set the benchmark for its continuation towards new heights.

Words: Aisling Marks



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