There are a number of good reasons why saxophone duos are rare. Saxophones, even in their incarnations as basses, are typically lead instruments. Skilled players already have a huge tonal range; couple it with Ayler-ian overblowing and other extended techniques and the saxophone emerges as an ideal wind instrument for the soloist. But more crucial to this scarcity is the position that the sax’s bright timbres occupy in a mix. The sax fills space. Its sound is almost physical. Therefore, attending to the spatiality of a piece becomes crucial for both players in a duo, or else they risk pure cacophony. Not that there aren’t a number of excellent free-jazz sax cacophonies out there (John Coltrane’s incredible Ascension comes to mind), but the duo format must control the chaos, because each player only has so much endurance.
Jazz has a way of throwing preconceptions out the window just to see what happens. Stones is a live recording of US-born/Canada-based saxophonist Colin Stetson and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson from the Vancouver Jazz Festival, where the duo headed on stage for an improvised set without ever having played together prior to the experience. The recording captures the two saxophonists in a state of total awareness of the unique improvisational situation they’ve entered. It’s as raw as it gets, but the attention that each musician pays to the movement of the other makes each piece tick and accounts for the wide variety of moods and structures on this short recording.
It’s precisely the spatial aspects of Stones that are most striking. When both Stetson’s bass sax and Gustafsson’s baritone attack simultaneously, it forces the listener’s ear to compensate for the auditory overload by shifting one voice onto an oblique plane. The two sounds seem to jump over one another and jockey for position in the stereo field, never quite settling into position. But neither player pushes the cacophony too far; there is just enough sound happening at once that it is intelligible and separable, which allows the listener to discern one instrument from another. After a burst of power, the duo moves forth into new structures, including reductive, almost minimal passages. The silence on Stones marks the other end of the spatial range. Just because saxophones excel at maximalist bursts of sonic energy doesn’t mean that they can’t be quiet or nuanced. It’s when the two musicians both arrive at the lower end of the dynamic range that the pair’s mutual awareness becomes clearest. Control is the element of improvisation that transfigures it from chaos to art, and when the duo explore minimal structures that emerge out of silence, we witness them exerting the most pressure on the piece. Parts of Stones even witness the sax in a percussive capacity, with the duo at times popping the finger pads as a rhythmic basis.
Stones lacks any organization except for what emerges from Stetson and Gustafsson’s sensitivity to the vector of each movement. It’s fluid, and within that fluidity, some discord occasionally enters. But the nature of the recording makes discord a certainty; what makes it impressive is how often the duo achieves synchronicity on an inaugural session. Stones documents those fleeting events. Like a rock, it’s a physical manifestation of a process in time. Its shape took this form because that is simply how they made it. The recording captures the irrecoverable magic of a first meeting and encapsulates it. With its singular, unrepeatable circumstances, we can say little more than that Stones happened.