When John Coltrane died in 1967 the jazz idiom rapidly shed what purists had distilled it to be, falling from the treetop of the early 20th century and striking every cultural branch of the latter half on its way down. The genre morphed through erratic age-of-Aquarius spiritualism in the 60’s, rubbed commercial shoulders with rock, funk, and disco in the 70’s, took a backseat to pop artists’ studio-sessions in the 80’s, and finally found something of a dignified retirement as a sampling source for countless hip-hop producers in the 90’s. Amidst this apparent life-boating, the dust of the exploded genre settled in some intriguing rifts wherein jazz embraced experimentalism without trading it for integrity. Pat Metheny recorded Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”, and John Hassell partnered with Terry Riley and Brian Eno to push the textural and compositional confines of the genre to an altogether different realm.
In 2017, with so-called Nu-Jazz in full view, Toronto saxophonist and composer Joseph Shabasonis solely pulling the thread left hanging by the marriage of minimalism and jazz in the previous century.
His debut LP, Aytche (Western Vinyl, 2017), reveals this cross-pollination to be as fertile and captivating as ever, fitting as well – or better – into this decade as any other. Shabason builds a bridge off of the precipice his forbears established, skirting jazz, ambient, and even new age with the same deliberate genre-ambiguity that made their work so interesting.
Aytche, however, is not a stoic march toward technological frontiers, but a document of exploration both inward and outward. Every step taken in sound-design mirrors a stride in emotionality, as Shabason employs a variety of effect pedals to coax rich moody textures from his instrument. Aytche deals with themes of degenerative illness and assisted suicide with eloquence that instrumental music rarely achieves regarding any subject, much less such difficult ones. Shabason’s compositions are steeped in a deteriorative quality that seems to melt and glide between peace and confusion, tragedy and resolve, like calm memories and end-of-life fears interrupting each other moment by moment.
Anne (Western Vinyl, 2018), the second album By Shabason, is a tonal essay on degenerative illness. Delicately and compassionately woven with interviews of Shabason’s mother from whom the album takes its name, Anne finds its creator navigating a labyrinth of subtle and tragic emotions arising from his mother’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Across the nine vivid postcards of jazz-laden ambience that comprise the album, Shabason unwraps these difficult themes with great care and focus revealing the unseen aspects of degenerative diseases that force us to re-examine common notions of self, identity, and mortality.
Shabason’s uncanny ability to manoeuvre through such microscopic feelings is mirrored by his capacity to execute a similar tightrope-walk through musical genres. His music occupies a specific space that is as palpable as it is difficult to pin labels to. On Anne’s second track ‘Deep Dark Divide’ rays of effected saxophone shine behind clouds of digital synthesiser that echoes the sound of jazz in the late 80s, but with a Jon Hassell-esque depth of sensibility that consciously subverts the stylistic inoffensiveness of that era. There is detail and idiosyncrasy beneath Shabason’s dawn-of-the-CD-era sheen that elevates the album far beyond a mere aesthetic exercise.
Still, the sounds on Anne are not so experimentally opaque as to stand in the way of the album’s through-line of sincerity and emotionality. When dissonance is employed it is punctual and meaningful, like on album- middler ‘Fred and Lil’ where a six-minute cascade of breathy textures builds suddenly to an agitated growl, only to abruptly give way to Anne Shabason speaking intimately about her relationship to her own parents. Snippets of such conversations see her taking on something like a narrator role across Anne while the sound of her voice itself is sometimes effected to become a musical texture entwined into the fabric of the songs without always being present or audible. The subsequent piece ‘Toh Koh’ then drifts into playful disorientation as a lone female voice echoes the two syllables of the title, recalling the vocal techniques of composer Joan La Barbara, or even the light-hearted mantras of Lucky Dragons. From here the album veers back onto its aesthetic thoroughfare with ‘November’ where Shabason lays muted brass textures atop a wavepool of electric chords provided by none other than the ambient cult-hero Gigi Masin, one of Anne’s many integral collaborators.
The serene tragedy of the album distils itself gracefully into the ironically titled album closer ‘Treat it Like a Wine Bar’ wherein flutters of piano and mournfully whispered woodwinds seem to evaporate particle by delicate particle, leaving the listener with a faint emotional afterglow like a dream upon waking. There is a corollary to be drawn here with what it must be like to feel one’s own mind and body drift away slowly until nothing remains, while the collection of memories and abilities that we use to denote the “self” softens into eternity. On Anne, it is precisely this fragile exchange of tranquillity and anguish that Joseph Shabason has proven his singular ability to articulate.