Colin Stetson probably could be called a “Saxophone
Colossus,” were that term not claimed long ago by the jazz great Sonny Rollins.
But Stetson, who plays solo alto, tenor and bass saxophones on New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges,
isn’t really a jazz player per se. He belongs more to the
“creative music” movement, championed by people like John Zorn, Laurie
Anderson, the National’s Bryce Dessner and other experimentalists who have both
rock awareness and a heady taste for the new and untried (and arty).
What Stetson, an Ann Arbor
native (who has a music degree from University
of Michigan) and who now lives in Montreal, brings to such
exploratory music is phenomenal use of what’s known as circular breathing –
breathing in while blowing out a note. That gives his sound – or, rather,
sounds, since he plays several different saxophones – a transfixing, hypnotic
backbeat that is much like deep breathing. And then he builds his solos up from
it. His liner notes say he uses virtually no overdubs or loops – all songs but
one are recorded in single takes. If so, that’s an amazing testament to what he
can pull from his saxophones – it sure sounds like some kind of keyboard/synth
is swirling around his crying, growling horn on “Awake on Foreign Shores,”
Overall, Stetson’s music has enough cutting-edge alt-rock
spirit that he has opened concerts for Arcade Fire and the National. (And one
song on this, his second album, is a cover of Bell Orchestre’s “The Stars in
His Head.”) But the most obvious influence would be Anderson, herself, and the
way she builds a mysterious rock-like momentum from the breathy circularity of
her voice, which can take on a variety of sounds as she alters it. Fittingly,
then, Anderson contributes spoken vocals to four songs here – on three of which
she gets a writing credit. They are mysterious and compelling; “A Dream of
Water” conjures imagery both abstract and nightmarish.
Another vocalist contributes an outstanding track, too –
Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond offers a hushed, siren-like vocal on the
traditional “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes,” with Stetson’s
minimalist saxophone providing a mournful buzz behind her that keeps
threatening to explode. When experimental-based music has just enough pop
sensibility to be accessible without compromising itself, it feels special.
That’s this album.
“Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” STEVEN ROSEN