Colin Stetson’s Circular Histories
by Jason Gubbels | May 13, 2013
With the third and final installment of his New History of Warfare series, go-to sax sideman/avant-garde darling Colin Stetson has positioned himself as a singular talent of the unwieldy bass saxophone.
Stetson's initial interest in the sax was sparked by hearing Men at Work on the radio, and he studied under Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, finding inspiration in John Zorn, Jimi Hendrix, Ellery Eskelin and Ornette Coleman (singling out the latter’s “Love Call” as a major point of interest). But despite his unique talents, Stetson comes from a specific tradition. His solo improvisations owe much to Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton, while his circular breathing technique was pioneered by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Peter Brotzmann (who also knows his way around a bass saxophone; check out 1987’s duet album Low Life).
Yet jazz performers are only part of Stetson's inspiration. The minimalist compositions of Steve Reich, such classical conglomerates as the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, and the electronic twitch of house/techno also inform his style. And though he made his mark with jazz outfits People’s Bizarre and his own Transmission Trio (and proved a worthy foil to Swedish powerhouse Mats Gustafsson), he’s shown himself to be equally adept at guesting alongside rock outfits (Tom Waits, Feist, Timber Timbre, Arcade Fire).
All these influences get showcased on his three Warfare-themed solo albums (including the just-released To See More Light), which eschew overdubs and editing in favor of single-take performances. Stetson has welcomed guest vocalists Laurie Anderson, Shara Worden and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but what this solo trilogy really showcases is Stetson’s remarkable technique. In his layering of sounds, breath control, melodic instinct and pulse, he has few equals. Here’s a playlist offering an entry into Colin Stetson's influences, side projects and vision.