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If you've seen or heard Colin Stetson play his sax, chances are the experience ended with your mouth hanging open, maybe wondering "What the hell was that?"

Prepare to keep catching those flies. Stetson's new EP, Stones, is a live recording of a free improv performance with Mats Gustafsson at the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It's a crazy, intense, 40-minute "conversation" between two greats meeting for the first time.

Stetson spoke with CBC Music about meeting Gustafsson, his fears of the sax-off and the naysayers who write off improv as "just noise."

How did you and Mats meet?

The [Vancouver] Jazz Festival invited us — we hadn’t met before, I don’t think we’d even talked before — and we were invited to do this duo concert because somebody out there thought it would be a good idea for us to meet. And we both thought it would be a good idea for us to meet and play. Luckily they put that together and we both said yes, and shook hands a half hour before we hit the stage and that’s it.

Wow. That’s like the best blind date ever.

[Laughs] Yeah.

And so it was recorded live at the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival and the resulting EP wasn’t pre-planned at all?

Yep, we didn’t talk about it at all. I mean, he knew some bit of my music from my solo record. I had grown up listening to Mats and he was one of the guys who was really formative in my training. We both had some idea, me much more so, otherwise we walked into it as you would any other improvisation.

From the outside looking in, it sounds like such a strange experience: you never played together before and then you just go for it and see what happens.

Yeah, well, coming from a history of improvising, it doesn’t seem that strange because that’s what so much of it is. So many shows can be and have been really impromptu situations. Some definitely feel and sound that way, others not so much. With saxophonists, when we get together, the fear that I and I’m sure others always have is that it’s going to become one of these sax-offs where we just lay out oodles and heaps of the trickery we’ve acquired over the years. There is that fear in the back of your head — or there was for me before I got onstage — about how much of the element of that competitive vibe we’d have when we get onstage, ‘cause I didn’t know. I mean, I knew Mats’ music and adored it, but didn’t know Mats personally and hadn’t played with him.

But as soon as we got onstage and started playing, immediately, whatever, if I had any fears about it falling into some sort of realm like that, it dissipated with the first notes. It was one of the best conversations I had had, like the best parts of an improvisation. We were both really, really present and we were, I think, inspired to be at the top of our game with each other. It was aggressive at times and kinetic, but the overall experience was something I thought was really beautiful and had really, in this one, 40-minute set, kind of solidified a really strong basis for our friendship, at this point.

Kinetic is a really good word, actually. To me the music has this feeling of an avalanche, and of scrambling up a mountain while it crumbles down.

[Laughs] And when you’re in the midst of something like that, there’s the feeling of — once you’ve established that momentum — of being overtaken by it if you don’t keep up with that. There’s just the two of you doing this thing you’re now a part of and you could very easily slip and stumble out of. There’s that sense of urgency in those moments that I really adore.

Some people who come across Stones may say, "Hey, that’s just noise." Do you have any advice of recalibrating one’s definition of what constitutes music?

I don’t know that I’d really advise anybody. And I definitely do agree that there will be plenty of people who listen to this or any kind of this kind of improvisation and say, "That’s just noise," and they’re actually welcome to do that. I don’t disagree with them. That’s their particular perception and I’m sure their perception can change, but for whatever reason, that’s what it is now. For me, the only thing I’d say about free improvisation in general, is that at its worst, yeah sure it’s all just a bunch of noise. But at its best, it’s the essence of what performance, listening and music is — very meditative. Boiling everything down to the moment and being entirely caught up in the moment.

Within that kind of music, you’re able to dissolve these contemplations of the past, where you’ve just come from, and at the same time what’s about to happen and you’re just, more so than in other more formal musics, are just existing in the moment.


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Colin Stetson, Mats Gustafsson and the 'sax-off' that sparked their new EP, Stones

If you've seen or heard Colin Stetson play his sax, chances are the experience ended with your mouth…


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