Higher Colin
Review: Colin Stetson/Hat & Beard, The Music Gallery, June 29
BY: Chris Bilton

A few weeks ago, saxophonist Colin Stetson was on American late-night television backing up Bon Iver for the indie troubadour’s appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Last night, he played a solo gig—and by solo, I mean it’s just him and his saxophones—in front of a packed Music Gallery. But don’t assume a direct correlation here: the impressive turnout comes just a couple of weeks after his excellent sophomore album (somewhat amazingly) made the Polaris Music Prize long list, which is an official stamp of approval on the copious praise that New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges has earned since its quiet, late-February release on Montreal’s Constellation Records. And all of this comes after over a decade of the Montreal-via-Michigan saxophonist playing with everyone from Arcade Fire to The National to LCD Soundsystem to Tom Waits. Needless to say, it seems like this is Colin Stetson’s moment.

All of this is exponentially impressive when you take into consideration that Stetson plays a unique sort of avant-garde jazz that’s an overwhelming and intensely physical blend of free skronk, psychedelic drones and Mozart-esque melodies. All of which is played by Stetson alone, usually on an imposing, howitzer-looking bass saxophone, using a circular-breathing technique that let’s him play for upwards of 10 minutes at a time without stopping the flow of notes to take a breath.

It’s the sort of sound that’s both frightening and captivating—the first chord of show opener “Awake on Foreign Shores” is a primal one, like a territorial dinosaur announcing its presence, and raises the hairs on the back of my neck. This tune segues into “Judges,” where throbbing, bubbling bass notes evoke the most precise Daft Punk subsonic groove—and you have to remind yourself that this is just one dude and a metal horn.

Stetson debuts a few new tunes, switching to tenor sax for a more fluid, baroque-sounding delivery where the notes come fast and furious and the sax sounds remarkably like a string quartet. Swapping instruments also gives him a break from having to heft the bass sax. (Seriously, this is no easy feat, and the combination of carrying all that weight while circular-breathing your way through 10-minute tunes is a workout regiment that UFC fighters might want to explore.) But it’s the monster horn that provides the most explosive music, especially on a tune like “Red Horse (Judges LI)” where Stetson sounds more like a drumkit thanks to the combination of low tones and sharp staccato inhales.

The show itself is further complemented by openers Ken Aldcroft and Dave Clark, who deliver super-playful interpretations of Thelonious Monk tunes as Hat and Beard. The pair does right by Monk by pulling at the loose threads of the inimitable pianist’s melodies and exploiting the spaces in between. Further exploring a number of tunes recently released on their Live at Somewhere There album, Clark uses every inch of his drum kit (and more than a few props) to provide a jaunty balance to Aldcroft’s complex guitar work.

Although both Stetson and Hat and Beard are playing music where the uniqueness is part of the appeal, both deliver such thoroughly rewarding performances that the music becomes almost transcendental. Stetson in particular, like all great musical innovators before him, plays with that rare sort of otherworldly vibe that’s better experienced than explained.