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Instrumentally Yours: The Saxophone

Damn, do I love me some saxophone. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that draws me to it such readily, and the only thing that I can come up with it that it sounds more ‘alive’ than any of the instruments in standard rock, as it’s driven by breath – comin’ from the very inside of a human being rather than stemming from the extremities. As flowery as that sounds, it means that no two notes are really the same, as the smallest change can make the timbre sound totally different and you can really hear the effort welling up behind the note, whether it be a quiet toot or a wailing peel.

Used at the low end, it usually has a lot more texture and character to it than just a pluck of the string . There’s a little wildness around the edges as it blasts the low notes into your gut; a feeling that you could just fall right into the gaping hole the sound creates. A little goes a long way. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?” doesn’t use it to replace the bass entirely, but does have an irresistible baritone sax part at the break, honking away at either side of your ears and sort of relishing in the deep tones by playing mostly the same note but with a funky rhythm. On his recent album, The Next Day, David Bowie’s opens “Dirty Boys” with the sleaziest, slinkiest bari sax line, barely able to keep itself above board through the verses of the song as Bowie recounts his times of debauchery with the lads. Near the end, it begrudgingly offers up a solo as it crawls towards the finish, no doubt hungover and pissed off and eager to get on with the next night’s activities.

As a lead instrument, it can open up a crazy amount, as you can go through all kinds of timbrel changes even around just the same notes, twisting your mouth or playing with your breath. It’s more akin to singing in that way, as it feels varied and articulate at points. I’d be lying if I said that my adoration of Van der Graaf Generator did not have a major influence on my selection of this subject. Using the sax as their main lead instrument, they’re caught right in the middle of wresting it from the hands of jazz circa 1970. In “Killer”, David Jackson lays down the main riff of the song alongide the organ (playing two saxes simultaneously, might I add), but quickly jumps at the chance to squonk and scronk away atonally – very much echoing the sounds of jazz but in the name of the energy and aggression of rock. The movement from order to chaos exhibited on the sax is awesome – the note becomes completely irrelevant and inaudible as he channels rage into the reed until settling back down at the return of the verse.

Pop music is also unable to resist the dalliances of that sweet sweet horn – it’s something I’m hearing more and more of and I’m getting excited about it. Lady Gaga uses a sax solo for the break in “The Edge of Glory” on Born This Way, and it creates an interesting contrast – hearing that sax wail about against Gaga’s usual bank of synths and drum machine seems like it would make the natural sounds of the sax seem out of place, but it actually fits in better than you’d think. The boisterous sound of sax actually fits in with the carefully tweaked synths that surround it – it has that thickness and character than we want out of synths nowadays, as we’ve long rocketed past the tinny sounds of the Casio. The synthesizer is supposed to sound like a synthesizer, not anything else. As such, it hangs quite nicely as another varied tone in the bunch – just as complex, timbre-wise as anything else in the bunch and  ripping notes to shreds left and right.

And then there’s “Baker Street”. I don’t think I could possibly come up with enough superlatives to describe the sax riff alone. After several listens, I’ve discovered that it actually has verses and a guitar solo, and they’re actually pretty good. But the sax. It plays that eight-bar riff over and over and gives it a different flavour every time – a little more gusto, a little micro-second longer note. It’s transcendent. Just listen.

And putting it all together is Colin Stetson. Often Arcade Fire’s hired gun, Stetson has put out three solo albums now playing only bass saxophone and with no overdubs. He instead has many, many microphones placed all over the instrument to capture every nuance of every little sound he can get it to make. Here’s “Judges” (and here, Colin breaks it all down). He’s playing low, high, the percussive aspect of slapping the keys and using some of his breath before he even gets to the freakin’ sax, which he needs a hell of a lot of to power the beast that is the bass sax. It sounds primal and visceral and otherworldly. The same instrument provides so many different facets at the same time, it’s dizzying. Provided, Stetson has an insane talent, but I really didn’t even know it was possible to do that and have each portion of it sounds satisfying as if each part were given to a different person.

Sax is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. Anytime I can turn on the radio and hear some really brassy woodwindy gusto, I’m super pleased. Possibly the reason I can watch this for hours (also because dude’s got serious moves):

P.S. I know it’s a meme – I could not find a video that looped the actual footage of the dude moving that didn’t have dumb text all over it. So I present the whole song because it owns anyhow.

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