Genre: Saxophone/Free Improvisation
Origin: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Where would music be without woodwind instruments? More importantly, where would we be without Colin Stetson? I know that the name might not be familiar on first sight, and I don't blame any of you for that; Colin has mostly appeared on the back end for artists like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, performing with various reeds such as bass saxophone and clarinet (you know, instruments that actually require a specific knowledge of wind and vibrations). The interesting thing about Colin is that he has seemed to master what is called the "circular breathing technique" that allows him to perform on an instrument without interruption and managing his breaths with more air. It's kind of ridiculous when you think about it because - if you're like me - you are trying to catch a breathe just reading about the concept.
Colin takes this talent and makes it something special on New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. Yeah, Vol. 2. That must mean that he has a Vol. 1 as well, but it wasn't until this album that Colin even caught my attention. Regardless, he has taken the multi-reedist title to new heights here, utilizing his circular breathing technique and creating music in one take that's so grand and misleading that it oftentimes sounds like electronically controlled. Shall I say it's simply "breathtaking?" You can check him out in action right here.
I would review each track but there really is no purpose, as New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges doesn't really call for attention in that sense. To summarize and put it more eloquently, Colin strategically pounds the bass out of his reeds and surrounds you with often beautifully-layered flutters. What's crazy about the whole "layering" effect is that in reality, he is playing one instrument in one take around a good number of microphones. It's as if he's attempting to push the instrument to its limits and capturing every tinker and touch of it, and the pay off is usually wonderful. It's so well orchestrated with Colin as your conductor that you would never know that it was one guy playing one instrument one time unless I told you otherwise.
This is also an album that emphasizes the ability of the human voice. There are snippets here and there that are spoken word pieces, read by musicians Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden, that sort of play with a "warfare" and "judgement" concept as the title implies, if a bit trite. It doesn't stop Colin from doing his thing, of course. The track "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes," the first thing you hear is his deep, deep inhale before completely swallowing you in bass, with Shara Worden topping off the sound with an elegant cover of Blind Willie Johnson's stunning lyrics.
You might be thinking that this is a case of an artist taking a a great talent and showcasing it to the point that the effect wanes; I can guarantee that it doesn't. This is an artist who can grasp his talent and consistently surprise us on each listen, and it's an interesting set of noises you might've never expected to hear. It certainly isn't music you DJ at your best friend's wedding, but Colin Stetson has created a thinking-man's music that's heavily improvised, jazz-oriented, affectionate, and downright badass.
Colin Stetson - "Judges"
Colin Stetson - "The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man"
New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is available now on Constellation Records.