Colin Stetson
Piccolo Teatro, Catania, Italy
Oct. 21, 2013

Among those names that in recent times have attained a slice of celebrity, albeit quite tiny, Colin Stetson is the one whose music will surprise listeners the most. It's easy to see why: though it's tiny numbers we are talking about, not "hit albums" or oceanic crowds, we don't have to forget that those albums that made this American musician "almost famous" - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, released about two years ago; New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, released in April - both have such an uncommercial instrument as the saxophone as their main character; often a big, quite "deep-sounding" - as in "bass" - saxophone, always played solo.

Reading about Vol. 2 made me curious about the man and his music. After repeated listening sessions I wrote a review where I tried to make clear what in my opinion were the best, also the weakest, points of the album, as clearly as I could, with no word-count limits to speak of.

It goes without saying that it's not his solo work that has made most people aware of Stetson's name, the focal point here being his collaborations. Taking for granted such prestigious gigs as Tom Waits, adding the "lateral" appeal of such groups as TV On The Radio, the key names in my opinion are Arcade Fire - a group that today is regarded as "a modern classic" - and, more recently, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon appearing as a vocalist on a few tracks on Stetson's new one.

At the end of my review I wrote about my wish to catch Stetson in concert, in order to see what could be attained in a live dimension, without those multiple treatments and skillful mixing work that were an important part of his recorded performances - always recorded in real time, by the way. My curiosity had not been so strong as to have me actively search for his most recent work, which was given a lot of attention, also fine grades, by the music press.

Stetson's arrival in town had already been announced a couple of times before, but no concert. Now I had the chance to go back to a familiar venue: starting with a concert by Rachel's, about fifteen years ago, standing room only - does anybody remember this "bizarro rock" U.S. line-up with strings, not too far from, say, Michael Nyman? - to solo Marc Ribot, to, just a few months ago, the trio of the acclaimed, but in my opinion quite mundane, "jazz" guitarist Mary Halvorson, this is a place that - through the work of very different promoters - has often given me the chance to take the pulse of the current situation - provided this is, indeed, possible. Those who attend tonight's concert being by my personal estimate about... one hundred? - we're quite far from the 240+ of Rachel's, but a bit above the 60/70 strong/weak Halvorson contingent. It appears to me that tonight a big slice of the town's "rock milieu" is missing in action, whether due to an important football match being broadcast on TV, or for other reasons, I can't say.

I see on stage a baritone and an alto - so, no bass sax tonight, for reasons of practicality, I suppose. Looking "almost-forty", Stetson wears a contact microphone that he places on his throat via a plastic thingee, and off he goes. In parallel to what appears on his albums, there are quite a few pick-ups involved: besides the usual one(s) placed on the instrument(s) bell, several contact microphones placed on the instruments amplify the sound of the keys being hit, with hyper-realistic results - this being the "rhythmic-percussive section" -, also the sound of the breath through the reed; a microphone of the regular type being what Stetson uses to briefly talk to the audience, the circular breathing technique he uses throughout being quite taxing on his breath, the concert ending after about one hour.

The output of the individual pick-ups becoming the input of "discreet" channels of a mixer, each instrumental "voice" receives a "personalized treatment", with skillful use of reverb and volume to make a coherent whole. Once in a while, especially on the first few pieces, Stetson looks upward in order to give a signal - looking from the stage, the seats go high, with the mixer being placed behind, and above - but from where I sit I can't see who's sitting there. At the end of the concert I'll briefly chat - separately - with a competent soundman who's part of tonight's service, and with a young woman who I assume to be Stetson's "personal technician" - the one, I believe, who really knows the notes - receiving precious information.

The music played tonight is the mix of ambient and minimalism that appears on the album. I could be wrong, but I think that tonight - especially on the tracks off his most recent CD, which Stetson introduces saying he's sorry that there are no physical specimens for us to buy tonight, those CDs he brought being totally sold out after just a few concerts, so asking us to buy them on the Web - his vocal parts are placed much higher than I seem to remember. Those are quite "ethnic"-sounding melodies which come to the fore, making the whole much more accessible. The audience is on fire after piece #1, with great applause to communicate their engagement and enjoyment.

I'll immediately admit that I'm a bit ashamed for my thinking this, but in the course of this concert I often thought about - well, not Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton, but certainly about Evan Parker "plus treatments" of such works as Hall Of Mirrors, with Walter Prati, and Solar Wind, with Lawrence Casserley, and not because those works resemble what is performed tonight! It's true, quite often critics and fans alike blame musician X for the lack of success of musician Y, who's "obviously much more deserving of wider recognition". It's also true that a good portion of the reviews I've read of both solo albums by Stetson I mentioned above were written by people who have obviously no knowledge of jazz and who shoot names totally at random, or get them off the press release - I mean, Albert Ayler!

In the course of my brief conversation with the aforementioned young woman I learned of concerts that were well-attended way above tonight's audience - this being the poorest so far, I learn -, CDs being sold out after just four dates.

Though it can sound "easy" when listened to from a Braxtonian or Mitchellian perspective, the music that Stetson presents in concert is not at all "easy". So this music being as successful as it is should be enough to improve my morale. But I have to admit that today the minimalism that's such a great part of this music cannot have the same impact - which went hand-in-hand with "eastern" philosophies so widespread at the time - of early works by Riley, Reich, or Glass. Even "life in slow motion" as presented by The Necks can be seen as appearing dangerously close to "wallpaper" - or to those famous Warhol movies of "eternal" length. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Though I'm quite conscious that arguing this point of view means I'm painting a target on my own back, I'll admit that I long for those concerts where people loudly protested in disapproval. It was a revelation, a few years ago, watching an audience at a concert by Zeitkratzer - where difficult, noisy stuff that would once provoke a tumult was being performed - sitting absolutely impermeable, later erupting into a noisy, exaggerated applause. A "TV audience", if this makes sense. And if the lack of "transferral" of one's liking to a different object can be seen as indicating a lack of understanding, the verdict is clear.

Everybody smiles, an encore is performed, we go away in peace. Stetson is an honest musician, though, whom I can't seem to consider with any degree of antipathy. We'll see what happens next.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013 | Oct. 23, 2013