February 25, 2024

Johnny Butler – ‘The Sunbather’ – “The textures are mesmerising and the technique quite awesome”

Hi4Head Records 16th Sept, 2022

This makes me smile. A record full of wit and humour. Start right at the beginning and the punched single
notes, delivered staccato with perfect timing for light-hearted invention while mining a sonic colour
palette that recalls Stravinsky. At the same time, the tight interlocking patterns of the instruments brings
Steve Reich to mind. And that’s just the first track, ‘Joker Family Reunion’.

When we move on, we find fuzz-tone distortion worthy of Sunn 0))), late-night sax balladry, Minimalist
cyclic sax patterns, a slow lyric mood piece, rattling noises, a lonely wandering lament, an EDM
sequencer piece (the exception to the rest – played on a Korg), drone worthy of an accordion, a smooth
quiet sax weaving slowly in and out of choppy breathy electronic rhythms, and finally ten minutes of
gorgeous solo sax, gliding from the smooth to the anguished. Recording is up close so sometimes we hear
breath or valves or minor side artefacts – it makes for a personal sound.

Written for dance pieces in 2021, the identity of each piece is strong. Having worked with mainstream
acts like Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen, Warren Haynes, Wynton Marsalis and The Levon Helm
Band, his desire to forge his own path must be strong and there are a couple of other releases, hopefully
equally individual, released in the last five years.

Johnny Butler is a saxophonist, so we hear plenty of that, from tuneful forays to lyric lines to breath-only
fingered sound to wild free jazz and just enough notes that sound ‘wrong’ but aren’t. These are composed
pieces, not a free-blowing improvised band, and the pieces vary hugely in tone, leaving a set of distinct
memories. The textures are mesmerising and the technique quite awesome. What is even more remarkable
is that all but one of the tracks are performed live in one take by Butler. He’s a one-man band, with a tenor
sax, a set of electronics, breath control and his body as additional controller. He tells us all of the music
was performed live with no edits, no overdubs, no samples, no loops, and no pre-recorded materials.

The combination of the unique expressiveness of the sax and the range of electronics makes this a
gripping listen; I find myself drawn into each track, paying attention for what will come next, since each
is so distinct, despite a common aural linkage. It’s had a lot of play since arriving at Vanguard Towers and
is likely to get a good deal more.

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