Nov 2 2013
There’s a couple new solo saxophone releases that are floating my boat. Both highlight different approaches to the medium, and the resulting sound of each holds a certain fascination.
Decent solo performance recordings are far and few between. The sonic possibilities revealed when it’s just the musician and their instrument can, in many instances, present a seeming obstacle of more open space than the musician knows how to fill. And the absence of interplay with fellow collaborators, an aspect of Jazz that speaks directly to one of its defining strengths, can also hobble the musician when they’re performing all by their lonesome.
But those that embrace that challenge, those that are able to look into the great void that serves as the difference between the sound that emits from their instrument and complete and utter silence, some of the more intriguing music to be heard results from that collision. Some of it is terrifically challenging. Some of it is profoundly beautiful.
Which brings me to those two releases. Let’s begin…
Johnny Butler – Carousel
If you weren’t told up front, it would be easy to assume that Carousel wasn’t a solo performance recording. The electronic washes sound like keyboard accompaniment. The rhythmic constructs sound like a percussionist at work. The layering of melodic lines gives the impression of multiple reed instruments at play. But it’s not. It’s just Johnny Butler, all by himself, manipulating his instrument with both its natural sound and the help with some pedals and looping and effects… all performed in real time with no overdubs or sampling.
Your album personnel: Johnny Butler (tenor sax, looping, effects).
Carousel sticks to a simple equation, then spends the album’s entirety providing different facets of those components. Pulsing cadences and languorous drones, and the beauty of this album is the way in which Butler shifts into one before backsliding back to the other.
Album opener “Bowtie” opens strong with with a quick step rhythm, bolstered by the looping of key clicks and curt sax phrases, and he builds that tempo up with an increasingly textured palette as a precursor to the low moan of the finale.
The title-track also begins similarly to “Bowtie,” but drops a linear approach for one that moves in tight circles. There is a palpable sense of dance to this song’s motion, even if only implied. That motion continues, but is juxtaposed against sonic washes of melodic drones that, eventually, saturate the entire song. The rhythmic element makes an appearance as the song reaches its conclusion, but it serves more as echo than counteraction of the low comforting murmur of sax.
“Two Clarinets” has both elements starting right out of the gate. Long slow soulful saxophone notes intermingle with patient bursts of notes looped through the eye of the melodic needle. No different than “Rose and Ice,” a nifty melody crosshatched with a lumbering cadence. It has a mournful presence, but emits warmth, not sorrow.
“Drum Solo” behaves like a Tom Waits performance, with its sly cadence and cool nonchalance with structure, and the added space-age sound effects and hammer clicks take it even further out to the fringes. And where “Drum Solo” leaned far heavier to the percussive element of this recording, album finale “Stasis” swings to the other extreme. A return to an atmospheric drift, of saxophone hovering just out of reach, a repetitive sigh atop a low pitched drone, and the echo of both in reply. And if “Drum Solo” is akin to Tom Waits, “Stasis” ranges far closer to the ambient excursions of Brain Eno’s Music for Airports.
A mesmerizing album with a live wire kick.
This album is Self-Produced.
Jazz from NYC.
Butler makes full use of looping, electronics and effects without any type of studio manipulation… the kind of thing that can be performed live before an audience as it can in a studio setting. The next album I’m spotlighting forgoes the effects, but adds an additional instrument to the mix… all the while, still, like Butler, offering up a performance that avoids any use of sampling or overdubbing, and gets recorded in real-time, no different than a live performance.
Jonah Parzen-Johnson – Look Like You’re Not Looking
The EP Look Like You’re Not Looking is an extension of baritone saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson‘s 2012 release Michiana… an album with a storytelling presence that was a little bit folk, a little bit jazz, and a whole lot of sonic exploration eclipsing genre.
But whereas his previous release focused on his imaginative take of a real town, his current release introduces his very real reactions to the places encountered while on the road, touring in support of his recordings. His haunting expressiveness is further enhanced by the introduction of an analog synthesizer to the mix… an instrument he grew fond of while on a tour stop. Its inclusion transforms the music with only a residual effect, not unlike how the final burning embers of a campfire change the experience from a meditative one into a palpable self-awareness of the nature of things ending.
Intriguingly, the analog synth makes the baritone sax feel less imposing, less assertive, and far more approachable.
Your album personnel: Jonah Parzen-Johnson (baritone saxophone, vocals, analog synth).
There are two album tracks on this EP. The first, “Look Like You’re Not Looking” begins with saxophone murmurs and asides, but shifts gears into wails and low soulful cries. The whine of synthesizer adds shading to the baritone’s darker colors, and the blips and beeps cut through the riveting drone. The tune ends with the same hushed presence with which it began.
The other album track is “Stay There, I’ll Come To You,” a piece that alternates between a solitary melancholia and a soulful exaltation. When it’s the former, Parzen-Johnson’s sax sounds distant and opaque. When it’s the latter, the blues spring to life, balanced by the patient, humming undercurrent of synth. The song is interspersed with interludes of silence, which gives some sections an abounding loneliness and enhances others with a fuller, richer life for the simple act of their presence, extinguishing the silence which threatened to engulf the song just moments earlier.
A captivating album, one that, I hope, leads to a fuller realization of Parzen-Johnson’s vision.
Released on the Primary Records label.
Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.
You can read my review of Michiana, Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s last album HERE, on this site.