Many listeners whose ears don’t normally perk up at the sounds of woodwind-based experimental music—i.e., free-jazz, improv and its contemporary variants—have been revved up this year thanks to Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges, released back in February by Constellation. While the contributions of saxophonists like Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Christine Sehnaoui, Ken Vandermark and Matana Roberts—all well-known artists in the experimental world—remain nobodies to many lovers of indie music, the Montreal-based bass saxophonist has been popping up all over the place. Not just that, but he’s been surprisingly welcomed by the synth-pop, verse-chorus and guitar-centric universe. Stetson was recently even invited to perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties, where he joined a very safe—even if a notch left-of-center—line-up of indie-approved artists.
Knowing the right people’s certainly been a critical factor for Stetson’s odd ascendance. He’s worked in the studio and toured with a handful of indie-rock studs—The National, Arcade Fire, Feist, TV On The Radio, Bon Iver, and LCD Soundsystem—as well as artists like Tom Waits, David Byrne, Jolie Holland and Sinéad O’Connor. That resume will certainly get both feet and a horn in the door, and while music writers like to think of themselves as sophisticated, uncompromising creatures, the truth is that most will likely pay attention to an unknown artist whose bio boasts such starry names and disregard the bloke who’s worked on numerous occasions with Alexander Von Schlippenbach and Han Bennink.
I don’t bring this up to discount Stetson. Regardless of these connections, his work deserves every drip of critical praise it’s earned. It’s important to mention, though, in order to put him in context both aesthetically—by noting his creative precursors and contemporaries—and politically—by pointing out his connections to the overlapping mainstream and indie music-worlds. Without the former, Stetson wouldn’t approach his instrument the way he does; without the latter, he’d be banished to the no-man’s land where those who dare disrespect the rules of traditional playing normally dwell.
On Those Who Didn’t Run, which features two tracks that both just surpass the 10-minute mark, Stetson explores the same extended, melodic, minimal and strangely percussive sonics as he did on Judges. He borrows as much from the experimental jazz tradition as he does from minimalist composers like Terry Riley—e.g. “Dorian Reeds” on Reed Streams and most of Persian Surgery Dervishes—and Steve Reich—e.g. “Music For 18 Musicians.” There are also post-rock’s quasi-romantic traces, as Stetson emphasizes slow, dramatic, and climaxing builds.
Unlike many avant-garde saxophonists, most of the time Stetson remains clear of shrieking outbursts and raw skronk, instead producing gradually developing melodic phrases. One of the reasons his playing’s more accessible is because, unlike hyper-aggressive (hyper-masculine?) hornsmen like Brötzmann and Gustafsson, Stetson provides more graspable, comprehensible and less abrasive structures. However, there are moments on Run, especially during the second half of “The End Of Your Suffering,” that are significantly harsher than anything on Judges. Quickly shifting from a delicate, flittering pulse, his horn abruptly spasms and shutters, emitting agonizing groans, blistering screams and shrill notes.
Though he’s still in the spotlight, only time will tell if these more brutal, free-jazz brass tendencies will alienate Stetson from the melody-seeking set. Will Stetson join the other Ronin-like avant-jazz outcasts? Or will he usher in a new appreciation for his music’s free-jazz and minimalist foundations?