Six Degrees of Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2…

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 09.13.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Besides touring with Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, Colin Stetson does solo gigs at rock and jazz festivals, playing unaccompanied bass saxophone pieces with big-beat power, clear forms studded with catchy riffs and sequencer-like patterns, and an enormous sound befitting a giant horn. He pulls it off using a battery of techniques from jazz and improvised music, notably circular breathing (to keep blowing continuously, even while inhaling), multiphonics (singing one note, playing another), slap-tonguing, controlled squeals, and split-tones that teeter between pitches. He also exploits incidental sounds: the brushes-on-snare sniff of drawing air through the nose, the slap of keypads on metal. His execution is a marvel of coordination; Stetson makes ridiculously complex stuff sound like it plays itself. He records the horn in real time with multiple close and distant mikes, then manipulates the mix to spotlight specific effects. For all that, the music's primal, suggesting ritual dances around a fire on the plains. "Three Blind Mice" lurks behind "A Dream of Water," narrated by Laurie Anderson in late-night-storyteller mode. My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden sings Blind Willie Johnson's "Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying" over a didgeridoo-y drone. Whirling worlds intersect. (Volume one's a winner too.)

And Now We Go A-Wailing

The difference between rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll is sometimes as thin as the choice of saxophone or electric guitar as lead instrument. Reed players had a head start on pickers when it came to freak instrumental effects, going back to vaudeville, one of jazz's incubators. Overtone-rich honkin' and screamin' saxes came a-roaring in the 1940s, unleashed by Illinois Jacquet's catatonic wail on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home." Umpteen raunchy riffing jukebox hits followed: Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train," Paul Williams's "The Hucklebuck," Hal Singer's "Cornbread," and anything by Big Jay McNeely. Most every hornblower here takes cues from Count Basie tenor star Lester Young's economical note choices, foghorn blasts, drummer's timing, and alternative fingerings of the same note for microtonal shadings. They're all part of Colin Stetson's frame of reference.

Circular Breathing I

Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Was a time, even in hip jazz clubs, when holding one note via circular breathing always drew applause. That technique for continuous blowing – inhale through the nose while pushing air out the mouth using the cheeks as a bellows – was popularized in jazz by consummate showman and fearsome virtuoso Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He was fond of vaudeville stunts like that, or playing two or three saxes or clarinets at once, or one flute with the mouth and another with a nostril. His circular breathing, showcased on the overwrought Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle, sounds more striking as part of the showstopping mix on 1971's Natural Black Inventions. Save for occasional helpers, Kirk is a one-man band, on multiple horns, homemade shakers and foot percussion, creating a world of music via force of will and formidable chops. Circular-breathing features include a Gershwin piano piece, "Prelude Back Home."

Circular Breathing II

Key elements in Colin Stetson's approach stem from England's free-improvising tenor and soprano sax virtuoso Evan Parker. He employs circular breathing to set up simultaneous melodic/rhythm cycles that crisscross each other in brainwave patterns of high and low layers. But where Stetson favors well-defined rock-ribbed riffs, Parker's spirals keep mutating, in solo performance, and in this duo with frequent ally Barry Guy on bass. Parker's corkscrew figures, gutturals and sputters sing out on "Slope," "Lurch" and "Fleam" in particular. The music's more atomized and abstract than Stetson's for sure, though often there's a similar ritual air. But then circular breathing long predates music-hall stuntwork. It's behind the eternal hum of Australia's didgeridoo and the drone of varied Eurasian folk reeds.

Roots of the Corkscrew

Terry Riley: A Rainbow In Curved Air; Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band

Terry Riley

Colin Stetson's repeater riffs and rotating arpeggios also derive from modern minimalism, where slowly unfolding processes may underpin a fast-moving surface. (Never mind that composers dubbed minimalists often reject that label.) Late-period John Coltrane's prayerful, iterative solos and swirly soprano skirling influenced Evan Parker, and also composer Terry Riley, one of the founders of modern repetitive music. Riley plays overdubbed electronic keyboards (including Sun Ra's beloved rocksichord) on "A Rainbow in Curved Air," and soprano saxes looped and layered (via two-tapedeck tech years before Fripp & Eno) over keyboard drones on "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band." On either piece, he exploits the same power by accretion that Stetson does. Riley, like Coltrane, was also inspired by North India's classical music, with its own unhurried development and built-in drones. Dive deep, it's all connected.

Music That Moves in Waves

Colin Stetson's bass saxophone is a leviathan, with all the slow-turning depths-plumbing gravitas that implies. The long steamship tones approaching from afar that begin New History Warfare Vol. 2 suggest aquatic mammals who make music with their nasal cavities, and sing 10- or 20-minute pieces everyone from their area knows (and which slowly evolve over time, to keep things interesting), songs where extraneous clicks, grunts and sputters enrich curving melodies of smeary moans and whistling highs. Since Songs of the Humpback Whale put their sound in human ears in the 1970s, those wails have informed our idea of what music can be. For now zoologists can only guess what whale songs mean, making the title of this Australian compilation especially cheeky. No worries. When Messiaen and Eric Dolphy quoted birdcalls, did they know what the birds had in mind?