In early summer 2011 I was lucky enough to attend Vancouver's terrific annual jazz festival. One of the most explosive and exciting performances I caught during my visit was recently released commercially: the first-time meeting of saxophonists Colin Stetson and Mats Gustafsson, a collaboration cooked up by the festival's excellent artistic director, Ken Pickering. The two men engaged in a sanguine battle of brawny horns that's captured on Stones (Rune Grammofon). Both players are known for their mastery of extended techniques, and though they use them to very different ends, here they manage to find a way to bond and communicate.
Stetson, a native of Ann Arbor who now lives in Montreal, is well-known as a versatile contributor to bands such as the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his greatest achievement is his wildly creative solo practice, where he directs his encyclopedic virtuosity—particularly a prodigious command of circular breathing—in the service of pop-rooted original compositions. He's developed a system using multiple microphones in and around his horn (as well as directly on his neck) to generate a composite of richly textured sound without using any looping. Every sound he makes is created live. Gustafsson, a Swede who now lives in Austria, is by contrast a bare-knuckled improviser who's transformed solo free improvisation into an act of performance art. His facial contortions and vein-bulging intensity are almost as exciting as the visceral sounds he unleashes in baritone and tenor saxophones. Whereas Stetson meticulously charts out his solo work, Gustafsson works without a plan, which may have made their debut duo easier for him to navigate.
Both reedists are muscular players (and muscular people), and I had my fears that the performance would turn into a testosterone festival (especially when they switched to their bass and baritone horns). There were certainly passages of knock-down, drag-out ferocity, but Stetson and Gustafsson quickly established an audible connection with plenty of give-and-take, often at low volume and with affecting tenderness. The extended techniques—percussive popping, striated harmonics, circular breathing—are all secondary to musical communication, sustained explorations of color, and delicate passages of almost lyrical interplay. Below you can check out one of the more energizing pieces, "Stones That Can Only Be."
Colin Stetson and Mats Gustafsson, "Stones That Can Only Be"
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I usually appear on WBEZ's Radio M program for a 30-minute segment on the third Friday of each month, playing some my favorite new international music. I'll be doing that again tonight, but I'm sticking around for the whole show to join host Tony Sarabia in discussing and listening to our favorite international music from 2012. The show airs from 9 to 11 PM.