COLIN STETSON with EMILY WELLS at the Drake Underground (1150 Queen West), Friday (August 26), 8 pm. $12. RT, SS. See listing.
Despite having played on albums by Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, Feist, LCD Soundsystem and many other big names, Colin Stetson is without question the dark horse of the Polaris Music Prize short list this year. That suits him just fine.
"It's the best position to be in," Stetson says with a chuckle from his Montreal home.
His idiosyncratic approach to solo saxophone music is so out there that any attempt to slot it into a genre is doomed to fail. If you listen to his most recent disc, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation), without knowing anything about him, you might assume you're hearing some kind of experimental, minimal electronic music based on heavily processed loops.
But a read through the liner notes indicates that the album's just him, sax, a lot of microphones and no digital help.
That's right - no loop pedals, no filters, no pitch-shifting trickery or even significant use of overdubs to thicken up the arrangements.
Circular breathing lets Stetson play indefinitely without stopping to take a breath. And by singing into his horn, he creates eerie counter-melodies to his angular sax riffs. Knowing this, it's still hard to believe all those strange sounds can come from one live take of a single person playing an acoustic instrument.
"I'm playing solo saxophone with extended technique that, until now, has mainly been used in free jazz and improv. I'm using it in song form with rhythmic, repetitive and melodic music that's more akin to rock, classical and electronic.
"The way people describe [what I do] is always subjective, depending on their particular experience and knowledge. There are still people who hear it as crazy free-jazz improv, and I have no idea how they get that. I'd love to jump inside their skulls for a second and see what the colour red looks like to them."
The music is far too strange to stand much of a chance of winning the Polaris, but that Stetson made it onto the short list is testament to his commanding approach. Even if you find his work discordant and difficult, you can't help but be impressed by the physical skill required to pull it off.
One of the few studio "tricks" he allows himself is the use of numerous mics. He augments the standard mic on the bell of the horn with others inside the instrument, on his throat and anywhere else that can provide a musically useful perspective.
"If you're recording a drum kit, you can throw one overhead mic on it and get great recordings from that. However, you're going to get a very specific picture of the drum kit. Certain things won't be heard as well as other things. What I'm doing is the equivalent of putting a close mic on every drum, plus also miking things like the squeak of the bass drum pedal.
"All the things that make a live experience powerful are pulled out and omitted in a recorded performance, so you have to come up with something to make the recorded medium unique in its own right."