Photo courtesy of Constellation Records
Colin Stetson, Justin Walter
Sunday, March 30, 2014
During the summer of 1999, Silver Jews bandleader David Berman released a slim book of poetry entitled Actual Air
. In “Self Portrait At 28,” a meandering, autobiographical look at his younger self, Berman pens these lines:
“If you were cool in high school
you didn’t ask too many questions.
You could tell who’d been to last night’s
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallways.
You didn’t have to ask
and that’s what cool was:
the ability to deduce,
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don’t know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.”
More than 15 years later, despite tectonic shifts in technology and communication, Berman’s lines still illustrate a cultural axiom regarding cool: While high-school pettiness dissipates with age, the pressure to simulate coolness often graduates into apprehension toward more esoteric disciplines. We brush off poetry, opera or even jazz for fear of looking stupid, and eventually, this dismissive attitude reinforces itself as a lack of understanding.
Montreal-based musician Colin Stetson
, whose principal instruments are alto and bass saxophones, runs with the “cool” kids. His extensive work with indie-rock heavy hitters like The Arcade Fire, The National, and Bon Iver has exposed his own rather abstruse music to an audience far beyond the cloistered realms of experimental circles. The sheer physicality of Stetson’s performances are their own show, meaning he can be respected and understood the way that even casual sports fans can appreciate the Olympics. Stetson has made it safe to express unabashed curiosity and enjoyment, even if you don’t immediately understand what’s going on.
That’s exactly what happened at Kings on Sunday night. Justin Walter, who opened for Stetson, played a few songs on a strange-looking instrument before he paused to ask the crowd, “Does anyone know what this is?” Most of the audience nodded their heads no, and some clamored to know more. The apparatus—something like a cross between a melodica and an oboe—was an Electronic Valve Instrument, the rare wind-controlled analog synthesizer. The crowd cheered loudly, greeting the Electronic Valve Instrument with strange warmth.
That same enthusiasm greeted Stetson when he took the stage. He opened the set with an elaborate, 10-minute piece for alto sax. The crowd, thick enough to fill the room, stood rapt as fingers went flying and sweat began to bead, and then drip, from the horn player’s brow. The alto stayed fixed between his pursed lips. Thanks to circular breathing—that is, simultaneously taking air in through the nose while expelling it out through the mouth—Stetson never appeared to take a breath.
With a rotating cast of saxes, the mightiest of which stands five feet tall and weighs in at nearly 20 pounds, it would seem easy for any player to get lost behind the instruments. But this was clearly Stetson’s show.
The entire venue rattled when Stetson first breathed into his bass saxophone, holding the crowd in deep-drone limbo before Stetson drummed up the throbbing bassline of “Judges”
with low-register key clicks. The crowd exploded at this release, pumping fists in the air and jumping in time to the club-like beat. Stetson only opened his eyes twice, holding soft focus for a few beats before rolling his pupils up toward the sky. For a moment, there was nothing left but the whites of his eyes, and then his lids clicked shut again. It was the look of person deep within the throes of physical activity, who is dipping briefly into reality before heading back to the more-automatic, less-conscious part of himself. Indeed, he later admitted to suffering from a bulging disc in the small of his back.
The hour-long set nearly ended with an energetic rendition of “Part Of Me Apart From You,” but the crowd refused to leave, forcing Stetson back for what seemed like an unexpected encore. “You’re really making me work for it tonight,” he laughed as he again donned his harness, the sweaty outline of which was clearly visible through his white t-shirt. It was clear that he was tired.
When Stetson was finally able to excuse himself, it was nearly midnight on a Sunday night, and the crowd had just clocked more than an hour listening to “experimental” saxophone solos. As the applause tapered out, discussion began:
What’s the difference between the saxes? How did he make it sound like that? Was this “jazz?” Does that man ever breathe?
A few people timidly approached the alien instruments, pointing out specific features and asking questions about others. Folks used their cell phones to research and shared what they found. Many walked out with new records tucked under their arms. For a few brief moments, pretending to know just wasn’t cutting it anymore. The pressure to simulate coolness was replaced by an earnest desire to learn more.