John Butcher & Andy Moor - Experiments With a Leaf [unsounds - 2015]Guitarist Andy Moor and saxophonist John Butcher's "Experiments With A Leaf" is oddly titled, containing no sounds sourced from leaves or nature, instead being a completely instrumental free jazz recording, with an intuitive, chaotic unstructured style characteristic of the genre. Focused on sound texture rather than melody or tonality, the call and response noises exchanged between the two musicians in the duo are something of a conversation, and couldn't adequately be precisely transcribed into 'notes' or traditional sheet music.
Despite being atonal and detuned in its angular rhythmic bleats, it is not in fact an 'ugly', harsh or violent recording, to my ears. It could be called uneasy, perhaps, but it's full of enjoyable timbres. Pleasantly crunchy distorted guitar harmonics and string noise interlock with the brightly vibratory immediacy of the alto sax, quivering with intensity on a droning pitch or maddening circular ostinato. Clever use of the higher pitched natural harmonics present in the instruments render this album quasi-melodic. Many sections feel spiritual, meditative, due to this undercurrent of drone.
Moor's guitar work often seems to imitate bird calls or insects, fond as he is of slowly scraping the strings for a percussive, high pitched clicking. The duo's favorite musical device is the use of short, circular volleys of notes, increasing gradually in speed and intensity for a sense of 'spiralling out' into desperation. Oftentimes, Butcher will continue cycling through a tiny pocket of tones with such stamina that I begin to suspect he must be using some kind of circular breathing technique (such an employed by Colin Stetson).
The album is very well produced, which plays a large part in making these sounds palettable. The guitar has a warmly muffled tube amp texture, with the most jagged parts of the high end rolled off. While Butcher's saxophone playing is quite percussive in its insistent 'peck' like tonguing, he has a much better sense than say, John Zorn, of where an abrasive squeal might be appropriate. This is undoubtedly a dynamic recording, as there many occasions where both musicians recede into silence at once, seemingly to highlight some faint wisp of string noise or elusive ghost presence within the amplifiers. At 30 minutes, the album is easily listened to, as well: I just played the entire thing twice while writing this.
I really enjoyed this album, a rare example of tasteful and purposeful free jazz, with a natural, listenable ebb and flow and a lot of juicy sounds. The duo's interplay is very tightly synced; the fact that both musicians' attention is perfectly zeroed in on the other is consistently evident. As you listen, you will hear the two simulatneously sketching the exact same rhythmic and energetic arc. Despite the completely abstract and unstructured nature of the sound, I had no issues following their performances with my mind. It's unapologetically dissonant free jazz, and likely won't convert a true cynic of the style, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone open to free improvisation, and especially fans of people like Mats Gustafsson.Josh Landry