Up until last night, I might have made the argument that the saxophone is one of the least interesting instruments on the planet. Although it is highlighted in jazz, its brass cousins easily overpower it in group arrangements. The saxophone, the metal woodwind, the wood-metal instrument with its odd metallic sound, is a bizarre thing. Up until last night, I would have made that argument… but then I saw Colin Stetson last night.

June 21st, 2013 @ Barboza – Seattle, WA

 

Jason Walter

First up was opener Brooklyn-based musician Justin Walter, who, as the only opener, did a fantastic job of bringing the chatty drinking crowd of Barboza to the front, with his eerie electronic loops. Touring in support of his new album Lullabies and Nightmares, Walter has one of the more interesting musical setups you’ll see in a long while, mainly because the instrument he plays is rather rare. He peppers light atmospheric tones with an Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), which — if, you can imagine the recorder you were forced to learn in elementary school, might be a good starting point. It is a hard instrument to describe and is best seen in person. Luckily, Justin Walter is also best seen in person.

 

Colin Stetson

Watching Colin Stetson live is an intense experience. One man and his saxophone isn’t exactly an awe-inspiring arrangement, but Stetson’s music isn’t merely one man and his saxophone. It is one man turning his saxophone into an entire orchestra by combining elements of jazz, drone, and even bits of metal into one phenomenal long breath. Stetson uses the circular breathing technique, where he inhales air and plays his saxophone at the same time — and for very long periods of time. By my count, the first breath lasted 14 minutes.

He rocks back and forth, his face beyond red, cheeks blowing up and deflating like a blowfish’s last dying attempt at survival; as he screams into the saxophone, you feel like you are drowning with him the entire time. Stetson’s latest effort New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light is a claustrophobic album at times, with his saxophone wail coming in from all angles at a relentless pace. It is brooding, focused, and at times painful, as you can witness the extreme amounts of physical exertion pouring from Stetson’s diaphragm and body. Stetson wears a small microphone around his neck, and on extreme pushes into the saxophone, a haunting tone echos throughout; he also mics the lower end, so that his fingers create percussion with the clicking of keys.

Stetson’s music at times is incredibly soothing and at just as many times is grating and tough to swallow; the result is a performance in the truest sense of the word. He: one man with a never-ending sex tone, wailing vocals buried inside it, and percussion — stands on stage, using every ounce of physical will power he has for the entire hour. Colin Stetson is a one-man avant-garde Vaudeville act, and the world is better for it. I went into the show thinking the saxophone was for junior high school jazz band practice and came out realizing it is a real instrument with real capabilities — in the right hands, of course.


COLIN STETSON AT ATP FESTIVAL, 2011 – PHOTOGRAPHY BY VIVIAN HUA

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