RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Hard Listening Master Class

img  Tobias Fischer

Today, Andy Moor's live approach seems so natural that one might assume he was born on stage. Things were different in 1991, however, when Moor was taking his first, tentative steps into the world of improvisation, like an explorer setting foot on a foreign and hostile continent. It was one album that would drastically change his perspective and serve as an important influence on his path in music: 13 Friendly Numbers by saxophonist John Butcher, who had only recently emerged from the fertile London-free-improv-underground as a member of influential formation News from the Shed. On this, his solo debut, Butcher documented not just some of his most engaging concepts from a decade's worth of sonic research. He also engaged with electronics - feeding his instrument through a simple feedback system - and studio technology, creating powerful multilayered soundscapes. The album sold only moderately well, but it did get Butcher's music heard in mainland Europe, paving the way for an international career that would last and prosper to the present day. Eventually, Moor and Butcher would meet, form the trio Thermal with Thomas Lehn and engage in a creative partnership in which both sides continually challenged and surprised each other. It should seem only logical that, in 2003 and a decade after the initial publication of the album, Moor would return the favour of his initiation experience by re-issuing 13 Friendly Numbers on his Unsounds label and making it available to a new generation of listeners and improvisers. The latter remains a relevant aspect. After all, as Moor puts it, since it still sounds as fresh as it did when it was first released.

In this essay, Andy Moor looks back on the time when 13 Friendly Numbers was first released, his own path as an artist as well as his collaboration with John Butcher.

My knowledge and interest in the UK/European improv scene in the late 80s was completely non existent. I didn't know there was an improv scene when I left Edinburgh, which was in 1990. Before then, I was listening to a lot of African music and jazz, but older American free jazz like Art Ensemble of Chicago and Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. I had no idea there was a thriving European scene of both jazz and non jazz improvisers. When I moved to the Netherlands to join the Ex, I started going to the Bimhuis with Terrie. He was already a big fan of several of the Dutch musicians from the improv jazz scene like Han Bennink, Ab Baars and Wolter Wierbos and from the UK particularly John Butcher and Derek Bailey. These five guys were for me the spark that started my interest. They all had a 'sound', a very personal and unusual sound so you could recognise it was them immediately as soon as you heard them. When I heard John's solo CD 13 Friendly Numbers, again thanks to Terrie who had a copy back then, I found it really striking and incredibly easy to listen to. The reason I say 'easy' is that I found a lot of the improvised music quite hard to listen to on CD. I still do, even though we put some of it out on our label … 'Live' it was a different thing watching the musicians interact, dealing with musical problems and solutions. And, of course, being in the same space as the musician is always a thrilling experience if you like what they are doing. But John's 13 Friendly Numbers - I could listen to that at home. Especially while working, cooking or painting. Each track was an amazing, self contained and well-crafted song with a clear story and a concise and clear build up in tension and form. And the sounds he was getting out of his instrument were sounds I'd never heard before coming from a saxophone. I found it really brave that a musician could release a CD like this. Till then I had only released records with a band, so the idea of putting something like that out was for me was remarkable.

I saw John live a few times at festivals, but I don't actually remember the first time I met him. The first time we played together was in Brussels. I was invited to form a group for a concert and suggested a duo with John. He then proposed a trio by adding Thomas Lehn. I didn't know Thomas at the time, but I listened to some of his music and liked his sound. I'd hardly done any completely free improvised gigs at this point, although Terrie and I had a duo at this time and in a way it was the first real improvised music we played. The duo with Terrie was great fun and totally chaotic and free and we played in Belgium a lot - but more in the rock club circuit than the improvised circuit. So I was quite nervous to be playing with John and a little bit starstruck. It's thrilling playing with musicians who you admire and respect so much and in the case of John, he was a such a friendly and humble person. The concert went really well and I was amazed at how much John was listening and reacting directly to things I was playing. I just didn't expect that. I was assuming that he would just do his thing and I would have to follow, as he was a much more experienced and brilliant improviser than me. And I would have been happy with that. But in fact he gave me a lot of space and really interacted with me, which I found incredible.

When I first heard John, I didn't know Evan Parker and when I started raving about him to some other musicians, a few of them mentioned Evan. So I checked him out. For me, they have more differences than similarities and it's the differences that I am more interested in. Technically, they are both amazing players, but they are searching for very different things and in very different ways. I can't do a comparison, as I don't know Evans work so well, I have never played with him. What I do know is that John is incredible elastic and flexible in his approach. He takes very sudden strange corners, changes direction, but can also stay on one sound for a very long time, slowly developing it and never too long and never boring. I can't pinpoint where his music comes from, it's certainly not jazz. It feels like it has some kind of connection with his past immersion in sub atomic physics, but I wouldn't be able to say how or in what way exactly. He's doing many things at once - research into some very minute microscopic sounds that he can create with his instrument, but also massive, full-bodied drones, strange melodies. He's searching like hell but always making beautiful music while doing it, which is a rare thing indeed. When you see John play, you immediately sense this guy will probably do this for the rest of his life. His commitment is total. If you watch his face while he is playing, it's astounding, his level of concentration is written on every muscle in every expression. I think he goes out way out there when he plays, but he keeps his feet firmly on the ground. His sound fills the room. He senses the space and the resonance in the space very quick and you can hear him and follow him working on this. It's fascinating.

In terms of re-releasing 13 Friendly Numbers on Unsounds, I really wanted this CD to have a second life. I think listening to it is better than any master class you may get in extended technique or improvisation. It was out of print and I felt it had been a bit ignored. It got a bit more press attention on the second release, but it's still underrated and has received scant attention. It's the kind of CD that doesn't sound out of date after 10 or 20 years. Of course in 2013 there are many horn players doing similar work. I don't see that as a negative thing, it doesn't reduce the value of this record. On the contrary, it makes it more special. It's fantastic that younger players were inspired by his work. I particularly like the multitrack pieces on this CD. They're a step away from the slightly rigid doctrine that recorded music of improvisations shouldn't be edited or tampered with - hence the enormous glut of bad sounding, dull 'live' improvised music CDs that have come out over the last 30 years. The multitrack pieces are really beautiful sounding experiments that still retain a spirit of improvisation, creativity and spontaneity. I thought it was daring move and one that he might get quite a bit of flak for from the purists. But they still sound amazing to me.

I recently played a series of duo concerts with John and it was great to work with him again. We did three dates in Italy and a radio session.Mostly we played acoustically, although in Rome, where the space was larger and quite dry due to a lack of non reflective surfaces, we used a mike and sound system. We played in a basement in Napoli, very damp but with a great sound. We did have to deal with howling dogs pissing on the stage and one audience member who insisted on joining in with us by scraping a can with the knife the whole set and shouting "merda". Not easy, but we managed. It's good fun playing with John as he is still full of surprises and you always feel his choices are carefully considered. It's a little scary sometime because I know he is listening "hard" and searching for solutions and ultimately great music. It's almost as if we embark on some kind of journey. This music definitely has a wide wide pallet, it can be anything we allow it to be. And we don't give ourselves any restrictions or rules. We play bloody loud, extremely quiet, very melodic, totally discordant, textural drones, ear screeching high frequencies or deep sub bass tones. The plan is there's no plan, yet it's not a "free for all" anything goes attitude either.

In an interview with Radio Battiti in Rome, John said that he prefers not to play too many concerts with only one combination of musicians and prefers changing regularly. He mentioned a 'pool ' of about 50 musicians he likes to work with. I was surprised - that's a lot, but it reflects his openness and willingness to take risks. It's very different from my own experience. I work with two groups and maybe five or six different musicians. For me, this is plenty. I like to develop each project as much as possible and work regularly with them, whether it's structured pieces or free improvisation. There's not enough days left in the year to do any more than this.

One of my favourite moments touring with John Butcher was on the Ex 25th anniversary tour. Mohammed Jimmy Mohammed, an amazing blind Ethiopian singer, was listening to John playing solo and I knew he'd never heard anything like it before. I asked him what he thought of John's playing. His reply was "a very accomplished musician". For me, that said it all.

From an interview with Tobias Fischer.
Image of John Butcher by Susanna Bolle.

Homepage: John Butcher
Homepage: Unsounds Records