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The gift of reverberation: Colin Stetson and Ben Grossman at the Guelph Jazz Festival (review)

©Brett Delmage, 2012Colin Stetson
Ben Grossman
Guelph Jazz Festival
St. George's Church, Guelph
Thursday, September 6, 2012

View photos of this concert

Some concerts produce the perfect match between venue and musician, and this was one of them.

Colin Stetson is best known for playing the bass saxophone. It's an enormous instrument, especially when slung crosswise across his chest. Stetson is under six feet tall, and, at first glance, the saxophone seems almost as long as he is – and yet when he starts blowing into its mouthpiece, it becomes an extension of him, a vehicle for his breath and mind. It was particularly impressive at this concert because he was the only person on stage, accompanied simply by bass and alto saxophones.

At any venue, the bass saxophone produces a sound that's deep, resonant, multi-faceted, and quite simply big. But in an older church like St. George's, with a high, long sanctuary designed to enhance the joy of choir and organ together, the effect was spectacular.

The floor thrummed. The vibrations filled the room, and reached right to the back. I kept envisioning standing sound waves travelling through that space, intersecting and expanding.Colin Stetson   ©Brett Delmage, 2012 The already-arresting quality of Stetson's playing (which was only lightly amplified) was intensified by how it was reflected and compounded by the chamber.

As Stetson said after the first number, “it's a beautiful place to play in.”

He opened with “Judges”, the title track from his latest CD [New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, Constellation, 2011], a composition including huge sweeps of sound, multiple voices, and occasional clicking of the saxophone keys in time. At some points in the 15-minute piece, it sounded like a lion roaring; at other times, like winds echoing across the prairie, but the overall feel was magnificent.

For the remainder of the 65-minute concert, he alternated between bass and alto saxophone. He continued to demonstrate his facility with circular breathing, which allowed him to extend the saxophone lines to their full, impressive extent – and surprisingly, allowed him to be almost as loud on alto as on bass saxophone. The songs often featured repeated riffs which Stetson would then subtly alter on each repetition, for a cumulatively larger impression.

Some songs, like “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man”, ended with a thunderous attack; others, like “A Dream of Water”, were quieter with bluesy undertones. On the album, that song includes vocals by Laurie Anderson; for this show, Stetson produced multiple layers of sound instead.

“Searching for an Unanswerable Call” got its name from the story of the loneliest whale in the world, whose song could not be understood by others of his breed because it was off by a few Hertz. Starting off quietly, Stetson's piece quickly became raw and atonal, with sounds of distress breaking through, and with overtones of a large and lonely space. It then moved to a constant quick underbeat, first accented by higher squeaks and then by harmonics.

“To See More Light” started with single long notes on alto sax, echoing through the hall. Stetson swayed with the music, swinging his saxophone in 45-degree arcs to change the angle of the sound. He added haunting voicings on top of the saxophone riff – which sounded oddly like a Celtic fiddle. Then he alternated huge roars against angry violin-like notes, softening and then hardening the sound again, before finally fading to the end.

After a bravura performance of “In Love and Justice”, which featured bass notes striking like heartbeats and saxophone roars reminiscent of a grizzly bear, the audience responded with an immediate standing ovation. Stetson, whose T-shirt was soaked with sweat by this point, responded “You really want to hear more saxophone? OK.”, and finished with a short bass saxophone piece, mournful yet compelling, featuring multiple voices on top of a bass beat – a fine example of his skill.

Stetson's material is an interesting example of crossover. As an improvising musician playing a standard jazz instrument, he emphatically could slide straight into any jazz festival's line-up (and Guelph's more than most). But his use of drones and multiple voices – as well as his indie connections (he also belongs to Bon Iver, and his autumn gigs include a European tour with them) – could equally allow him to reach an audience more familiar with electronica. In fact, he sounds like a perfect act for CBC's The Signal. But the quality and power of his musicianship should make him worth anyone's listen.

Ben Grossman   ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Ben Grossman

The first half of the evening's concert was provided by Guelph musician Ben Grossman, who plays the hurdy-gurdy, an instrument better known in a folk context, playing reels or other Celtic music. The hurdy-gurdy looks like an extra-thick viola, but its sound is produced by a wheel rubbing against strings. The wheel is operated by turning a crank on the side of the instrument, and the sound is modified by a small keyboard which changes the pitch of the strings.

Unadorned, the hurdy-gurdy produces a pleasant but undistinguished sound, like a lighter electric organ. Grossman does not play it unadorned.

For his uninterrupted 45-minute-long improvisation, Grossman had an entire table filled with electronics, a laptop, a dulcimer, and the hurdy-gurdy. He produced a constantly changing soundscape that started with a deep bass note, which was immediately replaced with a high-pitched whine. He played vibrating notes on the dulcimer using four e-bows, but modulated them continuously through electronics. Then he plugged his hurdy-gurdy into the electronics and produced a smooth line that got steadily more intense as he increased the speed at which he turned. He then added in loops from his laptop, and the sound kept changing.

Sometimes it was almost soporific; sometimes it was bright and chiming. Like Stetson, Grossman took advantage of the sanctuary's resonances to create echoes, particularly from harder-edged thumps within an overall drone, and chopped-off sounds. He looped some of his own music and then played against himself. Finally, he played a long drone on the hurdy-gurdy, and just cut it off, leaving the echoes reverberating around the room.

On one-man bands

Earlier that afternoon, Stetson, Grossman, and percussionist Debashis Sinha took part in a round-table discussion and brief individual performances at the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium, on the subject of one-man bands.Ben Grossman and Colin Stetson discuss one man bands at the Colloquium  ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Stetson said that he had never planned to play as a one-man band, and although his performances may resemble that, it was never his concept or intention. His path to a solo repertoire was organic and gradual over the previous 20 years, and came out of his work with avant-garde improvisation.

He argued that the physical informs music conceptually: his basic rule was that music must happen with no assistance and through his body. If he wanted a new sound, he would plot a way physically to get that. What informs his sound, he said, was trying assimilate sounds heard outside onto the saxophone.

Stetson's bass saxophone was mic'd – five in total, including a throat microphone that at one point transmitted a large gulp of water during the concert – but that was (as he explained) in order to balance the sound coming from different parts of the enormous saxophone. What the audience heard was still unadulterated acoustic sound.

Grossman talked about how the hurdy-gurdy has been seen in the past as a one-man band, but how he wanted to rethink its sound and alter it through using new pickups and looping to create rhythmic cycles that couldn't be achieved by a single musician. He wanted to create isorhythms: cycles of 7 or 17 or 12 beats at one time, and then place them against each other so they wouldn't line up.

Sinha talked about how computers and controllers gave him the opportunity to accompany himself using looping – which he couldn't do without those tools. As a percussionist, he was particularly interested in timbre and small sounds, as well as different rhythms and timings and cycles, and using electronic effects allowed him to be more of a one-man band.

This juxtaposition of different artists talking about and demonstrating their different approaches to solo performance was typical of the Guelph Jazz Festival, whose colloquium has frequently made a point of bringing together disparate artists to see how they inspire each other.

    – Alayne McGregor

All images ©Brett Delmage, 2012
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