Urs Leimgruber/Roger Turner

The Spirit Guide
Creative Works Records CW 1062

John Butcher & Ståle Liavik Solberg

So beautiful, it starts to Rain

Clean Feed CF390 CD

Jazz and improvised music, in common with many other spheres, have enough history to develop particular archetypes which are continuously cited in certain situations. For instance it seems that every set of improvisations featuring a saxophonist and a percussionist invariably gets compared to John Coltrane’s classic duets with Rashied Ali. But like totems no longer applicable for present times, the Trane-Ali duets have the same relevance to these saxophone-drums CDs as a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo would have to one by Axel Dörner. The instrument is the same, but the concept and intent are different.

For a start both of the duos here are part of the European Free Music narrative which removes the heightened on-your-sleeve passion of most Free Jazz creations. The Spirit Guide’s six untitled tracks and So beautiful, it starts to Rain’s three establish themselves through a combination of parallel and pointillist sequences. If Trane/Ali propositions come to the fore it’s only during some powerful tenor saxophone variations by Urs Leimgruber on The Spirit Guide’s final track.

Leimgruber, a Lucerne-based soprano and tenor saxophonist plus London-based drummer Roger Turner have been involved with free utterances for many years, working with the likes of vocalist Phil Minton and bassist Barre Phillips. Another saxophonist both have worked with is London’s John Butcher, who is one of their contemporaries. Confirming improvised music’s appeal, reach and future, on the other disc, Butcher matches concepts with Oslo-based drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, who is a decade and a half younger, and whose playing partners have ranged from guitarist John Russell to fellow percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love.

Like capturing the soundtrack of a haunted house, Leimgruber and Turner methodically and initially output a series of noises in the form of reed snarls and metal clanks plus tiny animal scratches before reaching a cacophonous climax on track 2 that suggest a drawer full of sharpened kitchen implements being dumped on the ground. From then on, like a diminishing battle between a boisterous simian and a gliding feline, the interaction moves from blare to barely there. Strategies often hinge on how well Turner’s measured slaps on palomor, skin, metal and wood stand up to the reed variables which stretch from disconnected squeals to narrowed split tones or airy puffs. By the time the Coltrane suggestions are audible on the final track, this combination of atom-sized reed peeps and distorted percussion raps confirm sonic originality unafraid to momentarily refer to earlier experiments.

Although Butcher’s tenor saxophone lines are harder and more straightforward than Leimgruber’s, the separation from Free Jazz is even more pronounced, with Solberg’s cymbal crackles and clip-clop patterning keeping the same distance. Not so much solipsistic as self-assured, the duo manufactures the equivalent of a smart car, in which more than two people would be uncomfortable. That means Butcher’s outpouring of corkscrew-like tones and sharpened tongue spears on “To Rain” turns to mellow tone variations when, like cream mixed into espresso, the drummer’s pops, pats, and smacks moderate the saxophonist’s sharp exposition. Another part of this comprehensive containment is that thickened kit smashes from Solberg are likewise transformed into restrained paraddidles when Butcher’s nearly inaudible breaths lead to more restrained aural architecture with the suggestion of properly aligned color blocks in visual art.

Most spectacularly these strategies are expressed at greatest length on “It Starts”. Without veering so deeply into atonality that the tracks’ basic shape is lost, there’s still enough latitude for another set of advanced techniques to be applied, ranging from, on Butcher’s part, circular breathing, figurative reed shredding and mouthpiece smooches. That the drummer’s mallet pops and final slapping cymbal crackles produce original sounds and rhythms while also deepening the connection, demonstrates the individualized strength of the duo’s connection.

The first track on this duo’s CD is entitled “So Beautiful”, which could serve as a description of either session. That is with the caveat that as with the eye, the definition of beauty resides is in the ear of the audience.

—Ken Waxman

Personnel: Spirit: Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor saxophones) and Roger Turner (drums)

Track Listing: Beautiful: 1, So Beautiful 2. It Starts 3. To Rain

Personnel: Beautiful: John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Ståle Liavik Solberg (drums and percussion)