Last Wednesday, jazz virtuoso Colin Stetson came through San Francisco in support of his latest album New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. Having tried (and failed) to see Stetson’s solo show for over a year, this was an opportunity I was not going to miss. While known especially for his saxophone skills, Stetson is an accomplished player of many woodwind instruments, including the flute, french horn, and clarinet. Whichever instrument he chooses, however, Stetson’s mastery of the circular breathing technique allows him to produce one continuous piece of music without stopping for the length of the entire composition. Many famed musicians have taken notice of his talents over the years, as Colin has performed or recorded with such luminaries as Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Feist, LCD Soundsystem, and David Byrne.

5-colin stetson chapel sax2

With the exception of some vocal overdubs by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Stetson’s new album features the saxophone exclusively, and despite the multitude of sounds layered on each track, each song was recorded in one live continuous take without any loops whatsoever. I was curious to witness how Stetson pulled this off, and to be honest, I’m still now sure how he does it. At times, I thought he must’ve been utilizing a mic on his voicebox or some other gadget trickery to produce some of the more mechanical or, for lack of a better phrase, non-saxophone noises, but after the show he explained to me that he was actually singing through the instrument and layering that on top.

The music Stetson has been producing lately as a solo artist can best be described as avant-jazz, in which he repeats atmospheric themes and rhythms that sometimes border on an electronic minimalist drone. The fact that he is able to constantly play without ever stopping leads the listener into a hypnotic trance unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The polyphonic moods evoked ranged from heavenly swirls and menacing storms to nautical whale-like scream. Words really fail to to encapsulate the sound, so I took a few videos to illustrate some examples.

Colin Stetson @ The Chapel, San Francisco

In short, this was an awe-inspiring performance; the concentration and stamina required to pull these compositions off was nothing short of mesmerizing. If you’re willing to approach this adventurous and challenging music with an open mind, you will certainly be rewarded.