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Aftermath: Sax Virtuosos John Butcher And Joe McPhee's Installation Sound

Joe McPhee
Joe McPhee
Photos by Brittanie Shey

Aftermath has never been to a concert at Richmond Hall, but Nameless Sound, Houston's contemporary music showcase and non-profit, has had a few shows in the hall on the south side of The Menil Collection's campus. Wednesday night's event featured two internationally-known jazz saxophonists - John Butcher, from Brighton, England, and Joe McPhee, from New York. And while the bowling alley-like Richmond Hall seems like a spectacular venue for a show, the reality is that, without any kind of insulation, every little chair shift, sniffle and throat-clearing echoed through Dan Flavin's neon installation art. Aftermath had to take off our sandals to walk around and get pictures during the performances because our soles were slap-slap-slapping on the bare concrete floor. But when it comes to improvisational jazz, maybe the ambient noise is part of the performance? Butcher plays sax like a layer cake - it amazed Aftermath that so many different levels of sound can come from one man and one instrument. His Web site shows an image of him playing in what looks like another gallery, and says that Butcher has recently started exploring site-specific musical acoustics, in which case the Nameless Sound gig makes a lot of sense. Installation art meets installation sound.

John Butcher
John Butcher

Aftermath doesn't know a lot about improvisational jazz but we wonder how much the feedback loop of a venue and an audience factors into the on-stage improvisational act of making music. Last night's audience was calmly receptive, listening quietly and stoically, some people with their eyes closed, until each piece ended, allowing them to break out in vibrant applause.

Interestingly, Butcher started life as a traditional jazzist who was dubious about the value of improvisational music. But he played in a few bands with his brother (who toured with Iggy Pop) inspired by groups like the Mothers of Invention and Soft Machine, and the more he improvised the more he took to it. So it's easy to see how he'd be able to convert skeptics in the audience. Towards the end of his set he was playing so fiercely he had to get down on his knees in front of the crowd.

During intermission we ran into Lucas Gorham of Grandfather Child. "I really hope you like Joe McPhee," he said. "He's awesome."

 

McPhee, a little better lit
McPhee, a little better lit

Later, when McPhee took his place in front of the audience, he said "I really want to thank John Butcher for the sonic exorcism. He's just so amazing." The Nameless Sound show was the first the two had played together. Saturday, they'll travel to the "vast West Texas desert" to perform at The Hill in Cornudas, Texas. That show is also presented by Nameless Sound.

McPhee started his set with a pocket trumpet, playing siren songs like a mourning woman, music sounding very much like murmured voices, or like a mocking bird echoing in the same register. Later he switched to sax and Aftermath made a list of all the sounds imitated by McPhee's instruments -- winds, whistles, foghorns, a didgeridoo. It was easy to listen to McPhee go off on musical tangents because for each song he'd always come back to the same percussive thread or pattern.

One of Aftermath's favorite things in music are the unintended artifacts -- fingers sliding across bass strings, cracks in Ian Astbury's voice. McPhee uses the sound of his fingers on the valves as its own percussion, and the intimacy of Richmond Hall was so rich that the 150 or so people in the crown could hear every breath he'd take. The sax has such range - it's often relegated to a backing instrument, so it was refreshing to hear it solo and hear two musicians explore the limits of what the instrument can do.


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