The nicely groaning pun in the title Tin-Pan Ballet points to two of Martin Butler’s main concerns: unusual instrumentation and the exploitation of popular styles, in particular jazz and bluegrass. In fact, Butler’s frame of reference is wider than that – the piece On the Rocks imagines Debussy playing cocktail-lounge music – and his allusions are a point of departure rather than a matter of pastiche. What Butler does take from jazz – apart from some slick rhythms – is a sense of fluidity and possibility, which he employs with an imaginative playfulness. In the title piece, the disparate sextet – flute, trombone, cello, piano, synthesizer and percussion – is made to cohere tightly and tunefully, to create a sparkling and off-beam caper. By contrast, the violin competition piece Bluegrass Variations takes up the melancholy implicit in much of that kind of American country music, melding double-stopped drones, a plucked banjo style and pentatonic modes into an evocative meditation. The collection also includes the rigorous contemplation of jazz styles Jazz Machines, and Going with the Grain, a three-movement marimba concerto in which the string and wind quintet imitate and sympathise (rather than compete) with the solo instrument’s qualities.
Butler’s work could not be better served than by Lontano (conducted by Odaline de la Martinez), who possess the appropriate wit and lightness of touch for this thoughtful and cheering music.William Humphreys-Jones