Improvisers are itinerants who usually travel cheap; concert harps are big enough to make any trip an expedition. That's partly why there aren't many improvising harpists. Still, there have been some good ones: Caspar Reardon played the instrument with ragtime inflections in the 1930s, Dorothy Ashby transferred bop piano technique to it in the '50s, Alice Coltrane got all cosmic with it in the '60s (OK, that wasn't so good), and Zeena Parkins made it downtown-raunchy in the '80s. Welsh-born Rhodri Davies doesn't go in for Coltrane's heavenly host arpeggios, but he doesn't miss many other tricks. He tours with crossover soprano Charlotte Church, plays eye-straining new music and head-scratching graphic scores, and of late does a lot of free improvising, turning up on a pile of recent discs. Sometimes he taps into the diffuse energy or jagged arpeggios of English guitarists like Derek Bailey and John Russell; sometimes the ruckus suggests a pianist poking around under the hood, though he can move quickly from there to quiet, pizzicato-fiddle high notes. But the way the big cables resonate makes the harp sound more imposing than those other axes. And Davies doesn't neglect the sounds harp begs to make: buzzing bass bombs, shrieking sheet-metal string scrapes, or bright hanging dissonances. He'll collaborate here with tenor and soprano saxophonist John Butcher, of whom he's a particular fan: Davies wrote an appreciation of the British reedist for the journal Avant a year ago, praising him for intensity without bombast and a knack for finding inspiration in other instruments. On "Pregeth," from a duo concert that appears in part on Butcher's 2001 release Vortices & Angels (Emanem), the tenor sax's fat, plosive tones mimic thwacked strings while Davies hides his quiet long tones behind the horn. The two do a good job of egging each other on by exploiting contrasts as well; the color combinations can be striking. Butcher still sounds like Evan Parker with asthma once in a while--he keeps the duck-flutter attack, loses the overlapping loops--but his attenuated lines have their own delicate grace. Wednesday, March 27, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan O'Connor.