Thursday, 15 January 2015

DIY electro-woodwind pioneer returns to bend the limits of the acoustic saxophone

Joe Wright is one of my favourite saxophonists and for years both his playing and his writing have left me mesmerised. He's an out-there musical thinker who went electric ("Judas!") using both solder and code with great results. Recently, he has started to share some solo saxophone recordings he made in a church. Saxophone limits have been stretched by generations of jazz and avant-garde musicians. But ladies/gents/etc... This is how it's done.

Over the last year or so, Wright has been pioneering the application of DIY hardware/software hacks to woodwind instruments (see his ingenious Fluke and ClariNot). For someone without his gruelling work ethic and supreme musicality, this might be confused for a gimmick. But Joe pulls it off. For recordings of his electronics in action, I heartily recommend picking up a pay-what-you-like copy of his work as part of experimental trio duck-rabbit, alongside Tom Taylor and James Opstad (I've included these for download at the end of the post).

A week ago he uploaded a video called "Seafoam", which had me stumped. It features him, on his own, playing what seems like a million dirty, delicate tenor saxophone notes (or just one) in an Aberdeen church. I listened to it again and again, and I just couldn't get it. Over time, I came to accept that it was always going to overwhelm me, and that I would probably never make sense of it. And that's when it clicked: That's kind of the point: There is a lot of detail in this piece to marvel at, but when you witness something as relentless and all-consuming as this rushing down from the altar - all from the distorted perspective of a fish-eyed floor-level congregation - you cannot help but be so completely overwhelmed.

The next piece from these recordings might have been a better place for me to start. Had I gone straight from one to the other, it would have been like keeping my mouth full of wasabi for a minute or so and then trying to eat sushi. Luckily I had a few days in between. When I got around to listening to the 7 Miniatures, I was ready for them. To save you the wait, I've embedded them below in reverse order.

Throughout the suite, Wright displays a mind-bending breadth of extended technique, but these miniatures go beyond a demonstration of ability: Each miniature presents the listener with a thoroughly developed idea, economically composed into a single, biting poem.

(Serving suggestion: get some headphones on now - alternatively plug in some speakers you can turn up antisocially loud - these sounds are outrageous.)

Joe Wright - 7 Miniatures

Besides the music itself, one marked difference between the two recordings is the posture of the soprano versus the tenor saxophone. Regardless of the differences in timbre, the onslaught that made Seafoam so powerful would be hard to imagine pointed to the ground: the bell must be aimed outwards - and the tenor allows this to happen with the urgent lean of a bull about to charge. With this posture, the seafoam becomes a merciless demon preparing to plough the aisle for anyone who thinks they've understood...

Joe Wright - Seafoam

P.S. as promised, some duck-rabbit downloads: