Guitarist Fred Frith and saxophonist John Butcher are titans within the world of improvised music. Over the last four decades, these two men have, between them, collaborated with AMM, Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, Brian Eno, Bill Laswell, Mike Patton, the Residents, Marc Ribot, Sonny Sharrock, Matthew Shipp, Otomo Yoshihide, John Zorn, and many more. Each man has permanently altered the way in which his instrument is heard: Frith with his (at times literal) deconstruction of the electric guitar, and Butcher with his exploration of the physical properties of sound and extended playing techniques.
Fred Frith first emerged as a member of the 1970s British avant-rock group Henry Cow; he’s also led or co-led Art Bears, Massacre, Skeleton Crew and Keep the Dog, and performed in scores of other contexts. He was ¼ of the off-kilter rock ’n’ roll quartet French Frith Kaiser Thompson, the bassist for John Zorn’s group Naked City, and a member of Bladerunner, the saxophonist’s short-lived band with bassist Laswell and Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. His 1974 album Guitar Solos represented a radical challenge to musical orthodoxy, anticipating much of the avant-garde playing to come. He teaches composition and improvisation at Mills College.
John Butcher began his musical career in the early 1980s, after abandoning a Ph.D. in physics. While his playing emerged from free jazz and European improvisation of the Evan Parker/Derek Bailey school, he gradually became more interested in overtones, harmonics and smaller sounds, exploring the innermost properties of the saxophone—and the room in which he was playing it. He’s recorded multiple solo discs, collaborated with major figures in improvised music and out jazz, and is renowned not only as a player, but as a listener—the kind of partner who values other musicians’ ideas as much as his own.
Though they’ve played live together a few times, this album, recorded in 2009 and mixed in 2012, documents Frith and Butcher’s first head-to-head encounter in a recording studio. Their goals were somewhat different—Frith says he wanted “to see what would happen. To have fun. To deepen the conversation,” while Butcher had more specific results in mind: “A thing that’s characterised a fair bit of my duo encounters with Fred is working at (for me) high volume. And I really wanted to get into, to go with, the energy of that—but without travelling to some of the overdone places where power often pushes a saxophone.”
Indeed, some portions of The Natural Order do get quite loud; “Dance First, Think Later” may remind some listeners of Borbetomagus, while the album’s longest track, the 13-minute “Colour of an Eye Half Seen,” heads into territory somewhere between free jazz and drone metal. Other, quieter segments, like the middle portion of “Faults of His Feet,” or the aptly titled “Butterflies of Vertigo,” document the sensitive interplay of two men who’ve utterly mastered their instruments, yet continually seek to express something new and never before heard.
The Natural Order is as pure a document as possible: recorded in a single stretch, with no overdubbing, the 10 tracks appear here in the order of their creation. Butcher recalls, “It was a morning session, the day after I’d arrived from London. So I was a bit jet-lagged. It was good to be using a studio and engineer (Myles Boisen) I felt comfortable with. (I first went there in ’97.) Everything was set up and we could, near enough, just start playing.” Listening to the music for the first time in five years, Frith says, “Recording and performance are so different to experience. In this case I can identify moments of discovery and self-discovery in the exchange that are really exciting to revisit. I think we both adjusted our vocabularies to accommodate what we were hearing, and did so in a spirit of absolute openness and freedom. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.”
The Natural Order is the perfect title for this album, which captures a single hour of unmediated interaction between two restless, creative spirits determined to make every moment with their respective instruments count. It’s not jazz, it’s not rock, it’s not noise—it’s pure music, the product of two men in one place at one time, unique and unrepeatable.
Fred Frith – guitar; John Butcher – saxophones