It’s not unusual in improvised music to find unlikely partnerships onstage. English saxophonist John Butcher and Japanese singer-guitarist-percussionist Keiji Haino might seem like such a pair. Much of Butcher’s work is refined exploration of the saxophone’s sonic possibilities, employing circular breathing, multiphonics, percussive elements, and feedback to create shifting textures that merge machines and the natural world. Keiji Haino combines the noise artist and the mystic, sometimes matching screaming vocals with walls of feedback guitar at rock volume in work that has elements of trance, ritual, and psychodrama.
How do they get along? Swimmingly. This performance from London’s Café Oto, their second time playing together, is a triumph, revealing different dimensions of each and resulting in some transformative music. The five segments include both relatively brief concentrated pieces and two long pieces that find their own winding paths. While there are whispered mysteries around ideas of sound, affinities sometimes gather around modes and pentatonic scales as the two reach deep into elements of jazz, blues, and koto music. Butcher passes beyond roots in Pharoah Sanders to Sanders’ own roots, touching on honking, bar-walking blues. Keiji ranges through delicate metallic percussion, soft vocals, koto-like extended techniques, soft vocals, and some stretches of amp-driven guitar that sound like it’s being played with hammers at high speed.
The most striking thing about trying to describe this music is that individual roles invite description while the whole defies it: the real art is in the level of interactive and unpredictable synthesis that the two develop, often with a strikingly powerful, multiply traditioned clarity. By the end, they sound like Sun Ra and John Gilmore, returned to Earth with a new vision.