As an awkward teenager I let myself be convinced into taking up the saxophone. My main memories of it are marked by my constantly bleeding lips, crushed and torn between the mouthpiece and a set of razor-sharp dental braces. If only I had been aware back then of just how brutally terrifying a saxophone could sound, I might have kept it up. But the record that first alerted me to this, Colin Stetson’s New History of Warfare Vol 2: Judges, only appeared in 2011, when my reed-gnawing days were long gone. His work since then has encompassed everything from collaborations, reworkings of classical pieces, and film soundtracks, most recently for Hereditary.
Tonight is a chance to hear two virtuosic and idiosyncratic instrumentalists at work. Percussionist and sound artist Eli Kezler starts off the night with his signature off-kilter virtuosity on the drums. Embedded as much in electronic music as he is in jazz, Kezler’s drumming is woven into a bed of synthetic and sampled sounds, triggered by midi pads connected to various drum pieces: the bass drum might usher in an ominous pad sound, a small floor tom is locked into a sequence of electric piano samples. His drumming style is based on tight clusters of spidery rolls, relying as much on the sides and rims as the skins themselves.
Before Colin Stetson arrives on stage the more curious people in the first row are carefully inspecting his instruments, a heavily wired-up trio of bass and alto saxophone and bass clarinet. The bass saxophone is monumental in size, its faded patina and the wiring of the contact mics connected to it giving it a martial feel with might account for the title of Stetson’s Warfare series.
This is matched in the physicality, both of the performance and the man himself. His neck muscles stretch the skin to bursting point, cheeks bellowing air through his signature circular breathing technique, his face turning varying shades of red and purple under the effort. The first piece of the evening is “The stars in his head”, from Judges, made up of a series of lightning fast arpeggios on alto saxophone, voiced in all shades from barely audible to metallic distortion. Another singular quality to Stetson’s playing is caught by the contact microphone wrapped around his throat, picking up his haunting screamed vocals directly from his vocal cords.
But the real excitement comes when he picks up the bass saxophone and launches into the eponymous “Judges”: the microphones attached to the instrument pick up the sound of the mechanism itself, the thudding of the pads amplified to an industrial degree that would make Nitzer Ebb sound like Mumford and Songs by comparison. It’s truly shocking the first time you hear it, and transforms the atmosphere of the room from polite enthusiasm to feverish intensity.
In between songs Stetson is affable and down-to-earth, visibly energised by the enthusiastic reception. “Where has the time gone?” he laments as he checks the time before his last song, and indeed despite all his athleticism there is clearly a physical limit to how long Stetson can perform these demanding pieces. The phrase “short and sweet” doesn’t really cut it in this context, but it’s a textbook example of leaving the audience wanting more. And leaving me to look up the price of saxophones on DBA.