By Tim Owen
John Butcher evidently has a special relationship with RED Trio’s pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro and Hernani Faustino and Gabriel Ferrandini – the same bass/drums combo that drive Rodrigo Amado’s Wire Quartet.
The British saxophonist and the Portuguese trio first teamed up in 2010, to record the vinyl-only Empire (NoBusiness) – the only RED collaboration with any kind of shelf life, following undocumented collaborations with American trumpet player Nate Wooley and bass clarinetist Jason Stein, Swedish percussion/vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl, and Polish experimentalists Gerard Lebik and Piotr Damasiewicz.
Summer Skyshift (Clean Feed) is rather different to Empire. The label say that when they toured together, Butcher (whose approach to improvisation is often held to be cerebral, on the rather slender basis that he once studied physics) usually took the Trio “out from any jazz comfort zones”, but this time “accepted to be pushed in”. They even make a comparison to John Coltrane.
And there’s something to that. Cerebral as he may be, it’s not unusual for Butcher to lean inward, particularly when going further out might be the easiest and most obvious option. He has his own aesthetic and identity, but he’s supremely adaptable, and much as his conception is very much of the moment he’s well versed in the music’s past.
Still, on this live session—recorded at Jazz em Agosto festival, Lisbon, in 2015—the trio+1 do kindle and ignite in a super-heated engagement that prompts Butcher to amp up with uncommon aggression.
The pieces take the customary form of a long main set (neatly indexed in three parts), followed by a shorter, but still substantial second innings.
“Track 1.1” has a moody, atmospheric intro that suddenly bursts into life, bass thrumming, percussion whirling, with Pinheiro scampering, cartoonishly impish, and Butcher trilling, note-rolling, and freewheeling on an allied trajectory. Pinheiro takes an exuberant lead, and the REDs revert to trioism for a while. But then Ferrandini explodes his already free rhythms, and volatility reigns, Butcher rejoining with a sour rasping tone reminiscent of the young Archie Shepp. The trio’s settling around him as the collective heat cools generates some tension of restraint.
A segue into “Track 1.2” signals a reversion to the opening mood, and they commit to it this time. While the double bass treads a steady path the piano trinkles brightly, and Butcher plays slithery cheeps and trills, then an unexpectedly throaty soprano sax narrative that flitters and coils, purring and pecking at bowed and percussive counterpoint contrabass.
It all kicks off on “Track 1.3”, with the trio reunited in all-in improv based on driving piano ostinatos, pulsing free-bass and tumultuous polyrhythms. Butcher upgrades from soprano to a burlier tenor horn, and steps up to meet the passion, resulting in an extended passage of exultant free jazz not so dissimilar to Meditations era Coltrane.
After a brief retreat to the sort of knotty, hardscrabble bass/drums kineticism that kicks off “Track 2”, which Ferrandini gamely counters with rapid, melody-loaded pianism, the set gets properly raucous when Butcher pitches in, still on that tenor tip but going further now, tearing into sheets-of-sound, whipping up a vortex of energy with seven minutes still ahead.
Maybe the ascension was illuminated by Coltrane’s precedent, but the way the quartet handle the subsequent diminuendo, resolution and final, irrepressible re-affirmation is peculiar to the very special synergy of John Butcher and RED TRio.