When I was ten years old, I chose the alto saxophone as my instrument for school band. I kept at it through high school, but gave up when my interests turned elsewhere. I still own that sax, but I haven’t touched it in years.
If only I’d known that it could create otherworldly music like Joseph Shabason does on his masterful debut album, Aytche, I’d probably still be playing today.
Sure, I heard an incredible amount of brilliant sax music in the years since high school, most notably the spiritual jazz epics of Pharoah Sanders, the keening roar of John Coltrane, and the earth-shaking fireworks of Colin Stetson. These guys showed me how powerful, how transcendent the instrument could be. But they didn’t show me a way that I could have seen myself playing.
When I last played, the saxophone, at least in pop music, was mostly associated with 1980s style cheese. It was a punchline sound, a way to deflate any sense of seriousness or art with a metaphorical fart joke. It was the vaudeville sex of Careless Whisper. It was, at best, the triumphant raised fist in an old classic rock tune like Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. To an insecure teenager in the midwest, it was terminally uncool, just something I did for school.
The first time I genuinely loved hearing the saxophone in a pop music context was Kaputt, the best of 2011 album by Destroyer. While Dan Bejar’s erudite songwriting was in top form, as always, he dressed it up in sleek, sophisti-pop sounds, echoing bands like Prefab Sprout and Japan. These synth-soaked, rollicking tunes were almost all cut through with the most unique sax tone, sounding at times more like the crystalline timbre of Miles Davis’ trumpet than the instrument I had sitting in my basement. The album, a melodic masterpiece and one of my favorites of the past decade, became a mainstay in my collection, but somehow I never peeked through the liner notes to find out who, exactly, made those individual instrumental sounds.
It turns out that this was a huge oversight, because that musician has not only played on several other great albums, but has now created one of my favorite albums in a long time. With his own compositions, Joseph Shabason has given me one of my biggest musical surprises of the past year. It’s a menagerie of unique shapes and sounds that the saxophone has rarely been involved in, perched somewhere on the outer fringes of recognizable genres.
While his guest turns with Destroyer showed a buoyant, melodic presence, his own solo debut reveals a radically different side of his work. Aytche is an often soothing, occasionally raucous take on weirdo fourth world jazz, a sound pioneered by trumpet player and composer Jon Hassell in his experimental work with Brian Eno in the early 1980s. Shabason shares his complete lack of interest in presenting his horn as a recognizable instrument. Here he uses a variety of effects pedals, ambient pads, and neon synths to evoke a nearly cyberpunk take on weirdo ambient jazz. It’s alternatively blissed-out and noisily anxious, twisting and blurring these two strains throughout its run. The entire album feels like a twisting dream, always pulling back into the surreal when its shape threatens to become recognizable.
You can hear it all streaming right here: