Nobody saw this coming - 2011 may go down as the Year of the Saxophone. The instrument infiltrated many of the year's most creative albums, often showing up unannounced to push an already awesome song into unforeseen greatness. As the world begins looking back at the past twelve months in music, here are the six best uses of saxophone in 2011.
6. Funky Butt Brass Band - "St. Louis Breakdown" Anyone who thought this local outfit was only capable of one flavor was silenced by July's You Can Trust The Funky Butt Brass Band, the sophomore release that presented FBBB as an endlessly versatile ensemble. Opener "Do That Thang" is the type of flawless second-line street beat you may expect from a brass band. The engaging groove of "St. Louis Breakdown" makes it clear that "Funky Butt" does not refer to the swamp-ass which may result from a New Orleans parade. "Breakdown" spotlights Ben Reece's tenor saxophone - technically not a brass instrument - for a solid minute. He makes his horn scream, like Maceo Parker being haunted by Eric Dolphy's ghost. By the time his band-mates back him up, their tight jabs feel summoned rather than composed - a testament to both Reece's control over his instrument and his willingness to surrender it.
5 & 4. Tie: Destroyer "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker"/M83 "Midnight City" Destroyer's Dan Bejar and M83's Anthony Gonzalez come from such different backgrounds, the former a Vancouver indie popper and the latter a French electro shoegazer, that lumping them together for any reason seems impulsively wrong. Yet, both released records this year with production transplanted directly from the 1980s. And not the quasi-cool new-wave area of the decade, the yacht-rock Huey Lewis strain. Which, of course, means saxophone solos, and both Bejar and Gonzalez were happy to indulge. "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker," the eight minute centerpiece of Destroyer's Kaputt, pads out its last 180 seconds or so with a smoov-jazz melody from the Grover Washington Jr. playbook. M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming brings out the big guns on "Midnight City" with a wailing solo that would make Lenny Pickett from the Saturday Night Live Band proud. But the overarching thread was the lack of irony, the gusto in which the saxophone was utilized by two forward-thinking artists in its most cheesed-out context 3. Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustaffson - "Lyman Place" The improvisational duets between Four Tet's Kieran Hebden and free jazz drummer Steve Reid were some of the most exciting cross-cultural projects in recent history. Their passion for each other was apparent, releasing hours of music in a scant few years, but the duo saw an end when Reid passed away from throat cancer in 2010. This year saw the release of one of their final concert performances, Live at the South Bank. The two had developed such a singular chemistry, so it's a moderate surprise that they brought a friend, saxophonist Mats Gustaffson. More shocking is how well the trio reads from the same pages. On "Lyman Place," originally from Hebden and Reid's NYC, Gustaffson treats his instrument as a source of sounds rather than a melody generator. His growls are a tasteful addition to the Manhattan garbage truck-load of textures coming from Hebden's laptop. Hopefully Gustaffson and Hebden will continue collaborating. It's a surefire way to keep Steve Reid's spirit alive.
2. St. Vincent - "Cruel" We sometimes forget that the saxophone has a similar timbre to a moderately distorted electric guitar. When combined, the two can be nearly indecipherable. Such it is with the melodic hook to "Cruel" by St. Vincent, a standout among standouts on Strange Mercy. St. Vincent's figurehead Annie Clark is no stranger to elaborate instrumentation or inventive arrangements, but never before has a horn been as integral to a tracks' overall feel. The saxophone gives "Cruel" its trot; it's rare to see the instrument used as a vertebrae rather than an ornament.
1. tUnE-yArDs - "Bizness" Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used a phenomenon he called "compression" in which he intentionally made entrances and hallways claustrophobic to alter your sense of space before revealing a stunning room. "Bizness" plays a similar trick, settling in as a mostly drum and vocal track, building into a massive production so subtly that the entrance of a bass guitar comes off as a high five. The big reveal is a saxophone melody where a chorus should be. Saxes are all over tUnE-yArDs' fantastic w h o k i l l. They add depth to "My Country" and make "Gangsta" all the more unsettling. Although they are the most harmonically pleasant on "Bizness", their presence alone provides a dissonance to the arrangement. The rest of the track is all Merrill Garbus, her drums and her schizo-soul voice. When the full sax section blares in at 2:27, it's the release of a tension you didn't previously comprehend, and the jump from such spareness to such excess is like dressing a skeleton in a tuxedo. I was partly joking calling this the Year of the Saxophone; I would not be surprised if 2011 sticks with me the most as my introduction to the inner passages of Merrill Garbus's overactive brain.