Perhaps no one did as much for the instrument's redemption, though, as Montreal-based avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson. Whereas Gaga and Destroyer alike used the sax in their 2011 releases to winkingly evoke the instrument's cheeseball associations, Stetson, with last winter's experimental, solo saxophone album New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, took the instrument we thought we knew and smashed it over his knee.
Speaking by phone from his Los Angeles tour stop, the 37-year-old points out that what's making a comeback is the '80s pop sax of George Michael; the instrument more generally never lost relevance in, for instance, jazz. "It's not about the instrument," Stetson says. "The instrument has been completely alive and well in lots of different circles."
Stetson grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., earned a music degree from the University of Michigan and cut his teeth in San Francisco and Brooklyn before settling in Montreal. A talented player with the ability to use circular breathing—an expert technique where, by simultaneously breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, players can produce an uninterrupted tone—Stetson has been an in-demand backup musician, working with heavy hitters like Tom Waits and Bon Iver (with whom he currently plays).
Stetson first stepped out from the session band with 2008 solo effort New History Warfare Vol. 1, but it was last year's sequel that introduced a wider audience to the saxophonist's original voice and ranked on critics' year-end lists. Stetson recorded each of Judges' complex-sounding tracks—on which one hears percussion, vocals and multiple saxophone tones—with a single sax, in a single take and without looping or overdubbing. He achieves this by rigging the studio with 24 microphones, including mics across the room, on the saxophone and on his person. The percussion? That's the clattering of the sax keys. The vocals? Those come from Stetson growling into the instrument.
What results from this unconventional recording process is filed as often under free jazz as classical minimalism; Stetson splits the difference between Ornette Coleman's wild improvisation and Terry Riley's meditative repetition to yield experimental yet accessibly melodic, expressive compositions. Judges is often squallish—but from the storm extends a hand to lead the listener into the record's inchoate but richly evocative narrative: Some story is being told. Spoken-word interludes, voiced mesmerizingly by experimental musician and performing artist Laurie Anderson, intensify the album's cinematic feel, but most tracks need no lyrics to vividly summon imagery. On "From No Part of Me Could I Summon a Voice," Stetson flings notes fluttering forth like swifts from a chimney; the sound is of something beautiful but disquietingly beyond control. Disquiet gives way to downright menace on "Red Horses (Judges II)," with Stetson's ragged breath and half-human sax caterwauling.
The theatrical vibe is intentional, as is the motif of existential dread. Envisioning Judges as part of a New History Warfare trilogy, Stetson says he is "trying to create some sort of modern mythology based on [his] own life experience." Vol. 1, he explains, was about birth and coming of age; Vol. 2 explores the isolation of consciousness, fear and transcending that fear. "I wanted to set apart from everything a singular character," he says, "and have the whole experience be one of absolute isolation."
Despite how involved his recording method is, Stetson insists his live performances—just him and his sax onstage—are intrinsically more robust-sounding than the record. In fact, the whole reason Stetson devised his mode of recording was to try to capture live music's three-dimensionality. "I really didn't want to do the standard: throw up on a stereo mic and just record a two-dimensional snapshot of the instrument," he says. "The recording is the way it is because I needed to make the music as dynamic as [it is] in the live context."