John Russell / Phil Durrant / John Butcher: Conceits


Emanem CD

Conceits was recorded in Bracknell in 1987 and originally released on the ACTA label in 1988. As well as early appearance from Butcher, it marks the inaugural outing for this trio, which reconvened for 1992’s Concert Moves and 1998’s The Scenic Route – all three of which are key documents of the British free improvisation scene.

This reissue on Emanem matches the original Conceit’s 12 short tracks with a live set recorded by Mats Gustafsson in Sweden in 1992 and is accompanied by perceptive sleeve notes from some of the players and associates. Here’s an excerpt from Tim Fletcher’s piece: “The strength and delicacy of the group were ever present with a genuine group empathy, often sounding like three aspects of a single mind, a perfect example of Fred Frith’s idea of ‘virtuosic listening’ as well as technique.”

He’s right. The trio sounds like it has stepped, fully formed, from an egg somewhere in east London, such is the vitality and maturity of the playing. It seems so fresh it could have been recorded yesterday.

Durrant starts the originally-recorded segment on trombone, which is a great way to kick things off, before switching to violin later on. Maybe it’s because I love trombone in a free improv setting (step forward Gail Brand, Ian McLachlan and Edward Lucas, among others) but these tracks seem to have, on balance, slightly more gusto. The trombone is an earthy, physical presence, human even, locking together with Butcher’s more abstract tones in an inspired pairing, with a welcome lower end throb that is a marked contrast to the glassy weightlessness later on.

Russell’s guitar, meanwhile, is the third leg of the stool. His playing is anchored avowedly to the physical body, neck and strings of his guitar with all of his rubbings and strummings. Yet, despite all that, at times his playing seems almost ethereal, surrounding the others like a cloud of bees round a honey pot.

Listening to the live set that accompanied the original tracks, it’s striking how naturally the two sets sit together. One would have thought that a just a week or month separated them, rather than half a decade. The intra-group vibes are still strong and the music ebbs and flows with that curious mixture of restraint and release that typifies the earlier recordings.

That there’s no audible attempt at ‘progress’ is liberating. The spurious, market driven concept of reinvention that drives many mainstream rock groups is entirely absent here, and the group is all the better for it, building things up from foundational principles cleave to the exploratory, communal core principles of free improvisation.

All three musicians are still going strong. Durrant is involved with several interesting ensembles, both with violin and electronics. Butcher celebrated his 60th birthday last year and seems to be as committed to uncompromising sound as ever. And Russell has recently celebrated his return to playing, following a serious heart bypass operation, relaunching his Mopomoso monthly salon and annual Fete Quaqua shindig. A second coming, perhaps? We’re honoured to have him, and his music.



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