His playing ranges through free improvisation, various structurings, his own compositions, multitracked saxophone pieces and work with live electronics, amplification and feedback.
He has toured and broadcast throughout Europe, Japan and North America, and was featured, playing solo, in the BBC TV programme Date with an Artist. Compositions include pieces for the Austrian group Polwechsel and the American Rova Saxophone Quartet.
Butcher started playing the saxophone at Surrey University, where he was studying physics - and his first concerts were in an avant rock group. Hearing musicians like John Surman, Stan Tracey and Louis Moholo triggered an enthusiasm for jazz, and he started learning and playing in various groups - often with pianist Chris Burn.
In 1977 he moved to Imperial College to began a Ph.D. on the theoretical properties of charmed quarks. He continued to work in Burns Jazz Ensemble (winning the 1980 BBC big band competition), and toured with a variety of outfits (such as London Contemporary Dance Theatre). At the same time, he was struggling to find the ways of playing that eventually led him to a commitment to free improvisation.
After getting his doctorate in 1982, Butcher left academia and went off with music; releasing the LP Fonetiks and playing in trumpeter Jon Corbett's Freelance (with Elton Dean). Around this time he began working in trio with guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant. They started the label ACTA to release Conceits (1987) and were joined in 1988 by drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti to form News from the Shed.
Various ad-hoc work in the 80s included a soprano quartet in Rome (with Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill), a DDR tour with trombonist Alan Tomlinson - and a couple of concerts with Derek Bailey. Butcher later played in a number of Company Weeks; released a trio CD with Bailey and the tuba player Oren Marshall; and has two live duo pieces with Bailey on Vortices and Angels (2000).
The quartet Frisque Concordance, formed in 1991 with Georg Gräwe and Martin Blume, meant more regular visits to Europe - whilst in London he joined what became the final version of John Steven's Spontaneous Music Ensemble. A New Distance contains their performance at the 1993 LMC Festival - the SME's last recorded concert.
Throughout the 90s Butcher played in many contexts with singer Phil Minton and their collaborations continue with a new duo CD - Apples of Gomorrah. Minton's quartet (with Veryan Weston and Roger Turner) has taken Mouthfull of Ecstasy - utilising texts from Finnegans Wake - throughout Europe and the US.
Other regular performances in the 90s included a duo with another singer - Vanessa Mackness; and with Chris Burns Ensemble.
Electronic music was an early influence on Butcher's approach to saxophone playing, and has become explicit in his electromanipulation duo with Phil Durrant which started in 1997. In the same year he joined the Austrian group Polwechsel, which has released 3 CDs - the last a collaboration with laptop and guitar player Christian Fennez.
Some commentators have described his wind trio with Axel Dörner and Xavier Charles as electronic music by acoustic instruments.
Butcher was a director of the London Musicians' Collective from '93-'97. He has given many workshops/lectures on improvisation and the saxophone (Royal College of Music, Barcelona Conservatory, Newfoundland Sound Symposium etc.)
Since the late 90s Butcher has become involved with many North American musicians - in particular duos with three drummers; Gerry Hemingway, Gino Robair and Dylan van der Schyff; and a trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm & drummer Michael Zerang.
Other current groups include, Thermal with EX guitarist Andy Moor & synthplayer Thomas Lehn - a sax/bass/drums trio with Fabrizio Spera & John Edwards - and duos with John Edwards, Steve Beresford, and harpist Rhodri Davies.
Solo concerts have long been a particular enthusiasm, and 4 solo CDs are available. Thirteen Friendly Numbers also includes pieces for multitracked saxophones, whilst London and Cologne and Fixations (14) focus on live performance. The most recent, Invisible Ear (2003) explores close-miking, amplification and saxophone-controlled feedback.
As an improviser Butcher continues to play in many occasional, sometimes just one-off encounters. These have ranged from large groups such as Fred van Hoves tnonet - Radu Malfattis Orkestra - Butch Morris London Skyscraper - the EX Orkestra - to duo concerts with Fred Frith, Carlos Zingaro, Kaffe Matthews, Joe Morris, Jin Hi Kim, Toshimaru Nakamura and Paul Lovens.
Dusted magazine wrote in 2003 - Very few artists explore their instruments with the dedication to progression and feral intensity of John Butcher. Though his earlier work embraced a traditional jazz outlook, Butcher has taken great strides in moving further and further afield from the conventions of both jazz and improv musics.
Butcher's website contains details of groups and recordings plus many photos, articles and MP3s.