Colin Stetson, known for his virtuoso saxophone work and haunting trilogy of avant-jazz solo albums, has put together a miniature orchestra to record one of the greatest pieces of music of the 20th century. While I had my doubts, the resulting album is an incredible feat of musicianship and passion. It’s a riveting new take on a classic that leaves the emotional core intact while adding new wrinkles to the experience.
This week felt heavy, swallowed by darkness, but I worked through it and kept pushing. I climbed up until I felt the final warmth of the sun on my skin. I got on my bike and kept going, further every day. I had some hard talks with those closest to me, and I now feel a peaceful sense of clarity about this moment in life.
I also listened to some amazing new music that both eased and enhanced my journey.
I began this mix in 2011, when I last returned to Michigan. In the midst of feeling directionless and alone, I was trying to start again, build something, connect myself with bigger ideas. Instead, I nearly ruined my life.
I was on a collision course with something terrible, and I had no idea it was coming.
In 2011, like every year since I’ve discovered how to harness the power of the internet (and a handful of discerning friends) to expand my horizons and unveil whole dimensions of music, has been an incredible year for listening: another slab in my monument to Why You Should Pay Attention. I held crushes on a number of albums and fell deeply in love with a select few. All deserve acknowledgement but only the most striking motivate me to gush at length. With a little luck, I can turn people on to something which will enrich their lives and change perceptions in small or significant ways. Or maybe even sell an album for one of these deserving artists!
I already shared about this man and his beyond brilliant ability to unleash a maelstrom of sound with one instrument and his lungs, but felt I could go deeper into showing how he does it.
This is a simple close up view of his process, without explanation. Seeing is believing…
…and because the man himself can elaborate simply and articulately about his process, breaking it down while he works, I’ll share this too.
As you can see, knowing how this feat is accomplished is a far lesser thing than the act itself. Just look at that monstrous horn!
Colin Stetson has created most physically thrilling music in years. The sheer power and intricacy of his saxophone work sets my mind racing with awe and excitement, and leaves me to rue the day I laid my own instrument to rest in its case for years. It’s taken me nearly a year to come to terms with what he’s unleashed and finally share my thoughts in written form.
Not only is this man setting the vanguard for new music and expanding perception of what an instrument can sound like, he’s unspooling aggressive hair-raising songcraft in an unprecedented, instantly recognizable timbre and taking everyone along for the ride. As intimidating as the notion of groundbreaking forms of woodwind communication seems, the music itself is open and inviting, something which can and will stop your mother in her tracks as she asks, just what is that? And then: how does he do it?
I’ll begin by going back to what I started writing about Stetson when his second full length released last spring:
As an incorrigible music junky, I’m always trying to peek over the horizon, searching for those incandescent bursts heralding a surprise. The elated rush of discovering and absorbing the truly new has no sensory equal. Looking over my musical history, it seems most of my favorite albums were of this stripe: works not only deserving my love, but challenging or entirely sidestepping my perception of interesting music – making an impact in the very nature of what I find pleasurable about listening. This blog was born of my desire to share that feeling as much as I could, and this post is as true to that aim as any I’ve ever written.
Stetson records in a tactile environment throbbing with tidal bass with details crackling like dry leaves against skin – I can feel its physical impact on my body. Two major factors drive this sensation: the performance itself and the unique recording process. Constellation MVP and newly christened engineer Efrim Menuck (of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) documented his sound in a fairly unorthodox manner. One listen through and anyone would feel suspicious about the claim that the entire album was captured via single takes with no overdubs; it’s an intricate, dense layer cake of ideas and epiphanies, and it’s always moving. The truth is this: using over 20 microphones positioned throughout the room, including contact mics on his throat and the instrument itself, every song was recorded in such a way that the multitude of angles could be folded and mixed together by engineer Ben Frost into the crystalline vision it is.
Stream the full thing. Now.
So that answers the question of how he does it and finally casts light on my few organized thoughts on the groundbreaking album. In the meantime he released the Those Who Didn’t Run EP and laid bare the sheer tidal force of his recording process with two 10 minute cuts demanding attention and awe in visceral fashion. Side A presents a rhythmic onslaught courtesy of his bass saxophone and Side B weaves an astounding counterpoint with an Alto, twin of the very horn resting less than a dozen feet from where I sit.
Each of these pieces sets me loose in an undulating labrynth of sound, bouncing off the walls riding a burst floodgate of energy straight toward the exit; the first full of low frequency mirth and massage, the second a stone hummingbird skipping across rapids and over waterfalls. They’re each an imaginary car chase down a pair of rabbit holes nobody knew existed a year ago and they set the stage for understanding the monumental accomplishment of the album they follow.
Stream this now, ok?
No amount of description or anecdote can prepare you for hearing this magic yourself. I could remark at the way it can bellow and sway like giant redwood trees in a hurricane, or blast images through my subconscious: ancient armadas cast into space, airborn mountains crashing to the surface, or pews and pipe organs and church spires crumbling in earthquakes. I could mention the explorations of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Don Cherry and Marion Brown and, hell, Pharoah Sanders and how – only cumulatively – they could prepare you for this adventure. I could mention that no prior knowlege is required in the least to enjoy this untethered journey into the heights of creativity and musicianship. To hear this is to witness the vision of a man exerting himself with superhuman effort and poise to craft intensely visionary music with tectonic force.