Photo credit: DM Stith
A lonely bass sax the size of a small adult sat still on the Kilbourn Hall stage. The festival crowd quietly waited in curious anticipation. A woman in the aisle was having a conversation with the man sitting next to me. It eventually got a little louder and more heated. My ears perked up and I started picking up what they were talking about. It was political in nature and let’s just say the woman’s views didn’t align with mine nor her friend’s. He was wisely only offering up slight disapproval, but her arguments were so invalid I couldn’t keep it in. Completely out of character, I rudely interjected into their conversation. Luckily the lights died down and she shuffled off to her seat. But my pre-show calm had turned into discombobulation.
Colin Stetson entered with a soprano sax that he placed down on the stage. It looked like the bass’ little saxophone baby. He picked up the Papa sax and proceeded to blow a note so low that the entire theater reverberated. It wasn’t a note you could hear, it was a sonic wash you felt throughout your entire body. It surprisingly wasn’t even all that loud, you could still hear every shift in every seat… and there were many. The note reset my mind from frazzled to back at ease. Like watching a hard disk defrag, I could feel the proverbial colored blocks in my brain come back in order as the music penetrated my body.
With masterful playing and many cleverly attached microphones, it was amazing the amount of sound he could coax from his instrument. There was rhythm, bass and melody simultaneously being emitted without the use of any electronic devices. He even occasionally sang through the sax to very cool effect.
When the bass heavy first song was through, a man in the front row asked, “How long can you do that for?,” referring to the circular breathing that allows him to play entire pieces without taking a breath. Unsure how to answer at first, Stetson finally arrived at: “I’ve never tried for distance.” It was the perfect response. A lot is made about his technique, but I found that the quicker you forgot about the how and concentrated more on the what, it became a lot easier to enjoy and appreciate his music.
Switching between the soprano and bass regularly, Stetson continued for a set of intense, oddly calming, and thrilling playing that made an hour pass like it was nothing at all.
His music wasn’t for everyone, but groundbreaking unique new sounds rarely are. Jazz music always needs new artists to push boundaries, create new avenues for exploring, and expand the knowledge-base of the entire musical community. Stetson’s unique and refreshing take on the saxophone, and music in general, does just that.
My social gaffe was all but forgotten. Though I had to wonder if that woman at least agreed with me on the music we had just heard.