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Free jazz, war stories and The X Factor: FACT meets the remarkable Colin Stetson

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  • published
    23 Apr 2013
  • words by
    Angus Finlayson
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    Colin Stetson
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You’d be hard pressed to find a CV more impressive than that of Colin Stetson.

The saxophonist has worked with artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, Laurie Anderson and The Arcade Fire, and is currently a jobbing member of indie darlings Bon Iver. That his talents are in such demand isn’t such a surprise, though, when you consider his instrument of choice – the formidable bass saxophone – and the inimitable way in which he plays it. Nowhere are Stetson’s singular talents displayed so effectively as in his solo work. Across a trio of albums Stetson exploits highly advanced techniques drawn from avant-garde jazz to make his saxophone drone, growl and shimmer, at times imitating whole swarms of instruments, at others sounding as if passed through several layers of digital processing. Stetson records solo, live and with no overdubs, but in spite of those limitations his compositions can evoke a sonic world richer than most manage with the full apparatus of the modern studio at their disposal.

Stetson is that rare thing: an instrumental virtuoso in a world of studio musicians, somebody whose feats of bodily prowess require him to maintain rigorous physical discipline. But for all that, his latest effort, New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light is not, to use Stetson’s term, a “geek show.” Stetson’s instrument, and his techniques, are very much a means rather than an end; a means to compositions that may bear superficial resemblance to, say, Evan Parker’s solo work, but musically find their roots in the classical minimalist tradition and the stark soundscaping of his Constellation label mates. To See More Light is Stetson’s most accomplished record yet, a rich and enveloping “war story” that concludes the New History Warfare trilogy. FACT’s Angus Finlayson caught up with Stetson to discuss his experience as a teenage prodigy, the hazards of being treated as a gimmick, and the decline of virtuosity in the modern age.


There are people who’ve said to me, “I listened to your music for six months, and then found out that you’re actually just one dude doing a thing… I thought it was electronic music.”


This album is the third in a trilogy. How is it a step on from the previous two instalments?

Well it’s a war story, in my mind. So in that vein everything is much more grand. It’s a much broader and more far-reaching landscape and atmosphere, for me.

Technically, either in terms of your playing or recording, would you say you’ve moved on between the first album and now

Absolutely. Each one of the three albums has built on the one before an enormous amount. Especially between 1 and 2. Not only in the way that we recorded things – I was able to get more invasive – but also the playing. After doing the first [album] I started to perform solo much more than I had been in the past. Quickly after that, physically, I became much more proficient. So with Vol 2 there was a lot more I could do musically, supported by all of these techniques. And then Vol 3 , again – there’s almost nothing in there that I could have played when I recorded Vol 2, I think.

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