Album Review: Joseph Shabason, “Aytche”
by Julian Hernandez
The saxophonist has long been pushed to the side since the end of the almighty Jazz era in the United States. While they still live on, surviving on adult contemporary stations across America, the saxophonist has been denied the chance to improvisation and exploration of the saxophone. Unable to break the mold of the saxophone as a jazz instrument, but also as a tool of music, there have been left few musicians daring enough to do anything about it.
With Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed How to Pimp a Butterfly the youth of the nation is once again drawn to the wonders of jazz and the great American musical tradition. Part of the album’s strength was the inclusion of various instrumental sections, including a strong woodwind presence. But this was not just a continuation of the great American tradition.
This is not the saxophone of your parent’s, via Kenny G, but a funkier and yet at times more calm saxophone, without the trappings of class or sex appeal that was once attached to it in the 1980s. This is a reinvention of the swinging saxophones the likes of Coleman Hawkins and the narrative saxophone of Sonny Rollins. It has taken the great explorations of the 1950s and 1960s and made it fresh through the layering of new digital mediums alongside classic saxophone techniques.
In this we find ourselves in the rising digital tide with jazz musicians and ensembles gaining mass youth appeal and selling out tours across the country. This is a new breed of musicians exploring their classical instruments with contemporary techniques and tools. The samplings and instrumental genius of Flying Lotus alongside the great saxophonist Kamasi Washington found their way on playlists of the summer, curated with youthful targeted audiences. Robert Glasper, a contemporary pianist and producer, has been heard across mediums. With compositions appearing on Syd’s 2017 album Fin, and the Ava DuVernay documentary “13th,” jazz hasn’t had a more convincing moment to return to the spotlight.
Joseph Shabason has taken this opportunity to rebrand the saxophone, and perhaps the genre of jazz. On his debut album Aytche, Shabason is saying that this instrument can become part of the millennial’s digital ear. Shabason is best known for his work on the The War on Drugs album Lost in the Dream and the Destroyer albums Kaputt and Poison Season.
After spending the last few years building up confidence in composing for various artists, Shabason has taken those experiences to delve into the remaking of the saxophone. Not content with the staleness of the instrument, he has taken to manipulating it where he sees fit. Organic saxophone notes and digitally altered notes are meshed together on this debut album.
While seducing us with slow building samples of keys we are rushed into rooms filled with saxophone that doesn’t compete with the synthetic notes, but ascends on their backs and floats in the void－this particularly exemplified on “Tite Cycle.” On the opening track “Looking Forward to Something, Dude” we get the hall filled digital water drops, commonly found in the vaporware genre, keeping the beat for the auto-tuned saxophone riding along in surety and introspection.
On “Smokestack” one has to consider the question as to how far the boundaries of Jazz can be pushed. With the distorted guitar wavering on in and out, reminiscent of the many track arrangements on My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” album, the saxophone bridges the gap between the chaotic sphere of the world outside one’s own self, and the safety and comfort that the digital age can bring to those cut off from their community. Think uploading your latest stream of consciousness into the cloud and having a few dozen hands reach out. As the track progresses, the saxophone amplifies itself.
On the title track “Aytche” Shabason’s compositional skills in arranging the organic with the digital are at their strongest. Chords carry the trumpet performed by J.P. Carter as echoes of the chords repeat themselves without overtaking the trumpet at any point. The production genius of harmonization shines through.
Some tracks miss the beat and get off course of the exploratory mission set out on this album. On “Chopping Wood,” accurately named for a track of a repeating knocking sound mimicking the chopping block, the trumpet performed by Nicole Rampersaud is altogether absent.
As a whole Aytche shows that Shabason’s earlier work has informed him of the struggle to elevate jazz back into the national limelight. With that challenge, Shabason applies the digital techniques and technologies to the heart of jazz and the saxophone. One can see he is eager to join the chorus of contemporary saxophonists blending the woodwind with the digital gust.