If there was an Annoying Cliché Hall of Fame, “You can’t tell a book by its cover” would be among its most vaunted honorees. To my ears, the sound it makes when someone actually says it aloud is nothing short of cringe-worthy. The worst part is that it means well — the notion that you should reserve judgement until you’ve had the opportunity to get to know someone or something is top-notch advice…
…and that’s what makes periodically proving it wrong so damn satisfying.
Before yesterday, I’d never heard of Colin Stetson. But this shot of him, taken by Richmond-based photographer and musician PJ Sykes for SPIN at this past weekend’s Hopscotch Music Festival, offered a powerful first impression. And while I certainly can’t say that I knew everything about Stetson right away, I learned a hell of a lot. The first thing that struck me was how alone he seems. Not alone in a vulnerable way, but in a way that suggests ease and individuality. It’s the look of someone with a relentless creative vision, someone not afraid to be a sole focal point. The second arresting thing about this image is the imposing nature of Stetson’s instrument. His bass saxophone looks enormous, especially when you’re used to seeing tenor and alto saxes, with a stray baritone thrown in here and there. It’s hard to believe a human person could play that thing standing up, yet Stetson’s right shoulder slouches only slightly — it’s wild.
These impressions turned out to be more telling than I could have possibly imagined. Stetson does in fact perform alone, using circular breathing and every aspect of his instrument to bring impossibly rich solo compositions to life. No loops, no percussion (except for the taps and clicks made by the sax’s mechanics), just a diverse set of sounds that are painstakingly wrenched into existence, forming bold and breathtaking musical thoughts. Had I not read that it was the case, I never would have guessed that New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was the work of a single musician playing a single instrument in single takes, but that’s exactly what it is. Given how beautiful and full these tracks sound, it’s a hell of a burden for one shoulder to… well, shoulder, but somehow Stetson manages, with grace and creativity to spare.
I’m so glad I saw Sykes’ photo, and I’m in awe of the way it captures Colin Stetson as an artist. Check out a video of Stetson performing “Judges” above, listen to the album version below, buy New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges here, and click here to see more of Sykes’ coverage of Hopscotch.