Three simple syllables that will strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting saxophonist: Kenny G. For many, the corkscrew-haired purveyor of sax-lead muzak represents the very apotheosis of the cheesy ends toward which the instrument can be put. From the obligatory reverb-soaked break on an 80s power ballad to the hackneyed excesses of jazz-funk, it’s certainly true that the unfairly-maligned instrument has been put to some rather questionable causes. But there is another, slightly less well-known history of the saxophone, one that runs from John Coltrane’s game-changing A Love Supreme, through the transcendental ragings of Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, to the post-tonal textures of Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. As a voice of spiritual ecstasy or an instrument of sonic warfare, the saxophone is far from the window-dressing it figures as in pop music.
Yet with recent innovations likes the monolithic endtimes squall of Borbetomagus or the marathon breathing runs of Colin Stetson, it’s tempting to think that the potentialities of the saxophone are all but exhausted. This, however, is not the case, and while incremental pushes in new directions are constantly being made in the worlds of left-field jazz, free improv and noise, a few new outlier voices come to the fore. These artists—Colin Webster in the UK, Travis Laplante and Andrew Bernstein in the US—are united in their thoroughly physical approach to their innovations of saxophone-based music. In their own ways, they each push both themselves and their instruments to physical extremes in order to wrest strange and exhilarating tones from their chosen instrument. The ends toward which they push themselves, however, vary widely.
Colin Webster is currently laying waste to the UK avant scene with his explosive yet nuanced noise. Indeed, the glut of past and present projects he has been or is currently involved with is daunting both in its length and the sheer ferocity of its content. But whether in bands, combos or solo, his playing always has his core, raw qualities—abrasiveness, extremity, and oddness. Webster started playing sax at age 14—coincidentally, the same age that legendary free improv saxophonist Evan Parker picked up the instrument. But after fruitless collaborations with rock bands and electronic producers during college he finally found a furrow in the form of music’s more atonal end, one that’s led him to the extremes textures that the saxophone can offer, as he explains, “When I started to hear more free jazz, improvised music, and contemporary classical music, and learn about these other ways of making music, it opened another portal to new possibilities. It also made me realize there was a huge range of sounds on the saxophone that I hadn’t explored yet.”