Saxophonist Colin Stetson
A force of nature
by Piotr Michalowski
From the January, 2014 issue
Saxophonist Colin Stetson was raised in Ann Arbor and trained at the U-M. Although his university studies and broad range of performance experience have exposed him to music of every sort, from classical to jazz, Stetson's aesthetic sensibilities are firmly set in his eclectic youth, when he listened to everything from Jimi Hendrix to Bach. After graduation he moved around, finding unorthodox contexts for the saxophone, working with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and others, eventually developing a unique solo recital career, focusing his energies on the bass saxophone.
The bass saxophone may seem like a strange choice for solo recitals, but its broad dimensions and exuberant sonic possibilities are perfectly matched to the vigorous physicality of Stetson's approach to music. He is hardly the first to use the instrument in improvised music; Anthony Braxton, Vinny Golia, and Joseph Jarman, among others, have explored its deep resonances in solo and ensemble contexts. Indeed, anyone who heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago in its prime will remember the imposing view of the two bass saxophones standing sentry at the front. But no one, it would seem, has made the bass sax the principal focus of a solo career.
In many ways Stetson's melodic and riff-based compositional and improvisational approach seems more suited to the guitar or to some computer-generated program than to traditional solo saxophone playing. But by applying techniques developed for new classical music and for free jazz improvisation, he's learned how to create sonic landscapes that seem to emanate from more than one instrument. Circular breathing--taking in air through his nose while blowing into the instrument through his mouth--allows him to create endless loops and avoid normal phrasing. His use of multi-phonics--playing multiple notes simultaneously--creates orchestral palettes, and the judicious application of the tongue to the reed and mouthpiece as well as hitting the keys of the big horn can generate pops and clicks that provide percussive effects.
Listening to Stetson immediately reveals his instrumental debt to
earlier visionaries who expanded the sonic palette of the saxophone and developed new solo languages, to Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, Gianni Gebbia, Mats Gustafsson, and others. His compositional vision is much more melodic, however, and references very different musical vistas, including rock, folk songs, the creations of Laurie Anderson, and the seemingly incongruous drones, loops, and repetitions of classical minimalists. Stetson's rigorous training enables him to absorb these influences and their attendant instrumental techniques and to make them his own. Often lyrical, his music is saved from sentimentality by a rugged physicality that caused one listener to remark that Stetson is simply a force of nature. He will perform his solo magic at the Arthur Miller Theater on January 15 and 16.
[Originally published in January, 2014.]
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