Colin Stetson – “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”
4.3 out of 5
Perhaps the greatest complement one could pay Montreal based saxophonist, Colin Stetson, is that he doesn’t fit neatly into any one box. Although the saxophone is Stetson’s main axe, he also plays clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, flute and cornet, which effectively makes him a one-man army. With such an arsenal, listeners may be quick to peg him as a Jazz artist. Yet to call New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, a Jazz record, would be to unfairly deny the scope and originality of Stetson’s incredible compositions.
I had the privilege of watching Stetson play a few years ago when he opened for The National at the tail end of their Boxer tour. Walking onstage with nothing more than a saxophone, (no pedals or effects of any kind), Stetson proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with a blistering 30 minute set that left me dumbfounded as to how so much sound could be created by a single human being. That he was opening for The National also spoke to Stetson’s artistic range and the impressive list of musicians who have taken to his sound. In addition to The National, Stetson has worked with Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, David Byrne, and TV on the Radio, just to name a few.
What’s so fantastic about Judges is that it defies traditional notions of what a single artist with a single instrument is capable of. Recorded solo, with no overdubs or looping, Stetson’s compositions hinge on his virtuosic technique and unique mic positioning. Impeccably produced by Shahzad Ismaily, and engineered by Efrim Menuck, Judges was recorded with no less than 24 microphones. Though it may sound extreme, the mic placement creates a breadth of sound, depth and tone that results in the illusion that there are three or four musicians, when it is actually only Stetson. Take the title track for example: “Judges” opens with droning bass sax (mics embedded in the horn), percussion (mics placed around the keys of the horn), and everything in between (mics placed on Stetson’s neck and at varying positions around the room).
Then there’s Stetson’s technique: a combination of circular breathing, which allows him to play continuously without coming up for air, tongue slapping, and multi-phonics. The result is that Stetson is able to incorporate a percussive effect and cyclical phrasing while literally singing through the saxophone. It’s this vocalizing that creates a counterpoint in the melody that is nothing short of astounding. Though he’s not the first sax player to utilize the technique (the late, Eddie Harris for example used it to similar effect), Stetson vocalizes without any additional instrumentation. This stripped approach and clever miking gives the compositions an organic quality; at times feeling as if you’re listening from inside the saxophone, exposed to all of the mechanics, wails, cuts and bruises the instrument has to offer. Elsewhere on the record, it feels as if you’re listening to Stetson play in the back row of an empty theatre, with the notes bouncing off the walls and reverberating throughout the hall.
With all of the technical wizardry, Judges could very easily have been a masturbatory exercise. But Stetson wisely switches things up just enough to keep the listener engaged from cover to cover. On several tracks, for example, experimental performance artist and musician, Laurie Anderson contributes spoken word. The effect is reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s turn in Max Richter’s excellent record, The Blue Notebooks, and it helps to establish a narrative, which ties the record together. Then My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden contributes vocals to the gorgeous cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes”. Pushed to the back of the mix, Stetson’s subtle accompaniment complements Worden’s vocals perfectly, resulting in a haunting rendition of the blues classic.
Stetson’s Judges will no doubt be mentioned alongside more avant-garde artists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and though the comparisons are warranted, Judges possesses a level of accessibility Glass and Reich’s more challenging works lack. Stetson pushes the boundaries of what a saxophone is capable of, and thanks in large part to his sense of melody and rhythm, the only thing you need to bring to the table when listening to Judges is an open mind… and perhaps a drink.
- Ewan Christie