Live: Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld, Gregory Rogove at Dilettante
Over two hours Saturday night on the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles, a trio of solo musicians offered three wildly distinctive sets, played four instruments using six precision-made hands to create an infinite range of wordless sounds, structures and ideas.
The three — Sarah Neufeld, Gregory Rogove and Colin Stetson — are better known for their work with prominent artists including Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Devendra Banhart, Feist and Tom Waits, but what they offered during their weekend performances was something much more expansive and experimental.
The three landed at Dilettante, a production house and performance space with an acoustically exquisite sound room, as part of a six-date West Coast tour. Neufeld, the charismatic violinist for Grammy-winning Montreal band Arcade Fire, offered five new, as-yet-unnamed solo pieces; Rogove, a multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer whose credits include working with Banhart, Megapuss, Liars and Medeski, Martin & Wood, sat before a grand piano to perform work from “Piana,” a John Medeski album devoted to Rogove’s compositions.
And bass saxophone player Stetson, whose imposing instrument had stood unattended before the crowd the entire night like a muscleman waiting to flex center stage, offered an astounding collection of solo pieces from his acclaimed 2011 album, “New History Warfare Vol. 2.” Known for his work with high-profile rock artists such as Arcade Fire, Waits and Bon Iver, what he played Saturday was something vastly more abrasive.
Performing in front of a capacity crowd (about 200), most of whom were seated cross-legged in a semicircle like a well-behaved group of Scouts, Neufeld played first and presented five compactly structured, and often frantic, compositions that at times suggested both the dissonant tones of 20th century composer George Crumb, at others the pastoral minimalism of Arvo Pärt, but with a contemporary, shuffle-era variety of references. For one piece, she added a touch of echo, which created thickened, boldface sound waves that accented an Appalachian-inspired fiddle run.
This respectful, intimate silence carried through to Rogove’s set. The pianist, with a video screen projecting films and artwork inspired by each piece, was a huge contrast to Neufeld. It was like hearing an Erik Satie miniature after watching the “Psycho” shower scene. And Satie was an obvious touchstone to the work that Rogove presented. His were living room pieces, crafted for solitude and deliberate listening. If at times his melodies and arrangements traveled the path of least resistance — some of the lesser pieces suggested George Winston-style floaters — his best work had precisely rendered and concisely designed ideas.
Pity the poor pianist, however, who has to open for Stetson and his monster sax — known to mortals as the bass saxophone. Wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, Stetson is built like a quarterback, with big biceps that get a workout with every heaving saxophone lurch of his body. So too do his lungs.
Stetson has perfected the art of circular breathing and has worked this approach into much of his work. To wit: He is able to inhale through his nose to replenish the oxygen in his lungs while simultaneously exhaling through his mouth to play his horn. Some players do this for a few minutes at a time, but Stetson did it all night.
Though his resume is deep, anyone expecting catchy, anthemic tenor sax runs had come to the wrong place. This was at times a harsh and dissonant show. When, during his first piece, “Righteous Wrath,” Stetson put the full force of his lungs through his bass sax, he sounded like an elephant blowing into a megaphone.
One of his signatures is a certain fuzz that he adds to his runs, some sort of magical lip-and-breath move that comes out of the bell as though textured with medium-grit sandpaper. When he picked up the alto sax to conjure higher frequencies, they, too tended to scratch out of the instrument with a touch of abrasion.
On “Home,” he hammered on his sax keys to create a skittery rhythm, while with his big horn he half-blew, half-moaned out an otherworldly melody. Sounds of mysterious origins came and went, hums that sounded both human and brass, like his jumbo sax had wheedled its way down into Stetson’s lungs to create true convergence.
-- Randall Roberts
Top photo: Saxophone player Colin Stetson performs at the Dilettante in downtown L.A. on April 21, 2012. Bottom photo: Gregory Rogove on piano at Dilettante. Credit: Mariah Tauger / For The Times.