Primary Instrument: Saxophone
John Butcher was born in Brighton, England and has lived in London since the late 1970s. His music ranges through free improvisation, various structurings, his own compositions, multitracked saxophone pieces and work with live electronics, amplification and feedback.
He has toured and broadcast in Europe, Japan, Australia and North America, and was featured, playing solo, in the BBC TV programme Date with an Artist. Compositions include pieces for Chris Burn’s Ensemble , the Austrian group Polwechsel and the American Rova Saxophone Quartet.
Butcher started playing the saxophone at Surrey University, where he was studying physics - although his first concerts were on keyboards in an ‘avant’ (for want of a better term) rock group. Hearing musicians like John Surman, Stan Tracey and Louis Moholo triggered an enthusiasm for jazz, and he started learning and playing in various small and large groups - often with pianist Chris Burn; and sometimes with his brother Phil Butcher, on double bass.
In 1977 he began work on a Ph.D in the Theoretical Physics department of Imperial College. It was published in 1982 as Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks.
During this period he continued to work in Burn’s large Jazz Ensemble (somehow winning the 1980 BBC Big Band competition), and toured with a variety of projects ( London Contemporary Dance Theatre, New Arts Consort, Extemporary Dance).
At the same time, he was struggling to find the ways of playing that eventually led him to a commitment to ‘free’ improvisation - as it was called back then. Rehearsals and monthly concerts at the Workers' Music Association in Notting Hill Gate were an important ingredient.
After getting his doctorate in 1982, Butcher left academia and went off with music; releasing the LP Fonetiks (1984) - a duo with Burn - and playing in trumpeter Jon Corbett's Freelance (with Elton Dean). Around this time he began working in a trio with guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant. They started the label ACTA to release their LP Conceits (1987) and were joined the following year by drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti to form News from the Shed .
Various concerts in the ‘80s included a soprano saxophone quartet in Rome (with Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill), a DDR tour with trombonist Alan Tomlinson and drummer Willi Kellers, tours with the quartet Embers - and some performances with Derek Bailey. Butcher later played in a number of Bailey's Company Weeks; produced a CD with Bailey and the tuba player Oren Marshall; and released a live duo with him on Vortices and Angels (2000).
The quartet Frisque Concordance , formed in 1991 with Georg Gräwe and Martin Blume, meant more regular visits to Europe - whilst in London he joined what became the final version of John Steven's Spontaneous Music Ensemble (with guitarist Roger Smith). A New Distance contains their performance at the 1993 LMC Festival - the SME's last recorded concert.
Throughout the ‘90s Butcher played in many contexts with singer Phil Minton and their collaborations continue with the duo release - Apples of Gomorrah. Minton's quartet (with Veryan Weston and Roger Turner) has taken Mouthfull of Ecstasy - utilising texts from Finnegans Wake - throughout Europe and the USA.
Other regular performances around this time included a duo with another singer - Vanessa Mackness; and with Chris Burn’s Ensemble, a trio with Minton and German guitarist Erhard Hirt, and the trio with Durrant & Russell.
Electronic music was an early influence on Butcher's approach to saxophone playing, and became explicit in his electromanipulation duo with Phil Durrant, begun in 1997. In the same year he joined the Austrian group Polwechsel , which has released 4 CDs - including a collaboration with laptop and guitar player Christian Fennez.
During his two tours of Japan he was pleased to play and recorded with no-input mixer specialist Toshimaru Nakamura. Another electronic collaboration is with Austrian lloopp/laptop artist Christof Kurzmann.
In the last few years Butcher has spent periods at STEIM and ZKM helping research a system for software recognition of his saxophone techniques with Californian computer professor William Tsun-Yuk Hsu. Recently, the approach has become developed enough for them to perform concerts.
In 2004 he collaborated with Newton Armstrong at Princeton University on interactive saxophone/electronic feedback manipulation.
Some commentators have described his wind trio The Contest of Pleasures, with Axel Dörner and Xavier Charles, as electronic music by acoustic instruments.
Butcher's collaborations with North American musicians actually began during visits in the late ‘90s - in particular duos with three drummers; Gerry Hemingway, Gino Robair and Dylan van der Schyff; and a trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm & drummer Michael Zerang.
Other recent European projects include:
Quartet: Cortet with Cor Fuhler, Thomas Lehn, Rhodri Davies;
Trios: Thermal with EX guitarist Andy Moor & synthplayer Thomas Lehn; The Smaller Brethren with Steve Beresford & Paul Lovens;
Duos: with bassist John Edwards, Steve Beresford (electronics), harpist Rhodri Davies and percussionists Eddie Prévost and Paal Nilssen-Love .
Solo concerts have long been a particular enthusiasm, as well as solo recording projects. Thirteen Friendly Numbers, Butcher's first solo release, includes pieces for multitracked saxophones, whilst London and Cologne and Fixations focused on live performance.
The recent, Invisible Ear (2003) explores close-miking, amplification and saxophone-controlled feedback, whilst the latest, Cavern with Nightlife includes a 2002 concert inside the Japanese Oya Stone mountain.
As an improviser Butcher continues to play in many occasional, sometimes just one-off encounters. These have ranged from large groups such as Fred van Hove’s t’nonet - Radu Malfatti’s Orkestra - Butch Morris’ London Skyscraper - the EX Orkestra - Richard Barrett's SWR NEWJazz Meeting project - to duo concerts with Fred Frith, Akio Suzuki, Carlos Zingaro, Otomo Yoshihide, Kaffe Matthews, Joe Morris, Jin Hi Kim, and Paul Lovens.
From 1993 - 1997 Butcher was a director of the London Musicians' Collective. Around this time he also organised, with flautist Nancy Ruffer, two SoundArt festivals - programming composed and improvised music.
He has also given many workshops/lectures on improvisation and the saxophone. (Royal Academy of Music, Barcelona Conservatory, Newfoundland Sound Symposium, Swindon Arts Centre, Princeton University, Sherwood High School, Parthenay Festival, Stanford University etc.)