Sten Sandell Trio + John Butcher – Strokes (CF 082)
Here’s a paradox. This is a release which emphatically preaches the virtues of free improvisation yet it does so by means of stealth, an awareness of the infinite possibilities of light and shade, and the fashioning of music that’s never less than acutely aware of the intrinsic value of silence and near-silence.
Over the course of two lengthy pieces and a relative snippet, this augmented trio sounds like anything but—such is the group’s advanced level of integration. If Evan Parker and Lou Gare can be taken as the two British tenor sax players who have blazed the trail in free playing, it’s clear that at this point in his career tenor saxophonist John Butcher owes little to either of them.
The fact that he doesn’t could be as much down to dedication as anything else, and on “Study” he operates in a minimal vein entirely his own, working as much around Sten Standell’s comparatively hyperactive piano as with it. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love seems alert not only to every nuance of the music on this one, adding to the flow of the piece as he provides shade and color in a fundamentally astringent soundscape.
In their collective and fundamental lack of concern with established precedents, these players put down a marker for the untrammeled demands that freedom makes. Thus bass player Johan Berthling, on the same piece, flies in the face of convention even when Sandell reaches for the Cecil Taylor approach as he does at around the 22-minute mark. There’s a whole lot more than mere iconoclasm at work here, and Berthling’s broken lines seem to have the effect of bringing the group back from an uncertain precipice.
The opening of “Unsteady” finds the group expanding upon its electroacoustic palette through Sandell’s use of electronics and Butcher’s manipulation of feedback. As the piece progresses it becomes evident that the relation between the tempered note and musique concrète is another of the group’s concerns.
On a less rarefied level it also serves notice of the fact that any notion of the working group with special guest variety is also irrelevant. This is fiercely integrated music, and even when Butcher summons up the spirit of Evan Parker’s infinitely spiraling soprano sax lines the impression is no more than transitory, usurped by the demands of the group’s singular operational credo.
Happily, the less than three minutes of “Steady” doesn’t sound like a brief introduction to what this group does or indeed the ground it covers. Instead it finds the players working in territory more akin to free jazz, but in a manner that almost entirely invalidates the term. It’s still a fundamental expression of musical freedom as such, and as such it’s right in keeping with the rest of the programme.
It’s occasions such as this, when musicians come together to produce something sublime, that make a reviewer’s task the opposite of onerous.