A couple of weeks ago I gave a ringing endorsement to a John Zorn album ("Radio"), and in it I referred to him as the second scariest saxophonist I know of. No doubt that put you ALL on tenterhooks, so here I bring to you (in my opinion) the single scariest saxophonist known to man.
A Japanese alto-sax stylist named Kaoru Abe. Born in 1949, died in 1979. According to an AllMusic post he had issues with drug addiction and various other substance problems; there's even a film reportedly about him called "Endless Waltz" (with only 25 ratings on IMDb!), which is available on YouTube and certainly worth a gander.
To business; this guy makes the saxophone sound like it is literally being tortured with the death by a thousand cuts (Google that at your discretion; interestingly it's also the subject of a Zorn concept album). I've never heard ugliness personified so well as it is by this man and his instrument. Every aspect of his music is unwieldy and offputting; twenty five minute, meandering songs with no theme or thread at the centre. One instrument, yes, but that doesn't stop him from getting it to sound like a violin at times. The individual notes skitter and jump, slow down and speed up; it reminds me, in its way, of brain synapses firing off, and the "freeness" of it all makes me think of a train of thought, a personal monologue made real through the medium of a strangled instrument.
This is obviously pretty forbidding stuff, but underneath it all there is such pertinent mastery of this instrument. I mean that truly; if you listen really closely, you can hear the various strands of tune and melody that Abe picks up and puts down again. In many ways, it's like a collage of sound. You feel as though any one five second period of his music could be extrapolated into a genuinely nice sounding piece of music, if there was some kind of theme. Hence, it has the effect of dragging you about, it roughs you up, it makes you feel scared but also thrilled at the same time.
I'm writing about his unofficial LP Winter 1971 (original pressing currently listing at three and a half grand on Discogs!), but really it could apply to any of his work, since thematically that was very much what he stuck to. He teases something beautiful in short spurts, before about-turning and leaving you with a barrage of discordant notes; this dichotomy only serves to accentuate the ugliness.
This really is the nitty gritty of trying, testinzg music. It doesn't get much more dirty than this (the odd jazz-fusion effort comes close). I mean all of these things unequivocally positively; whack this on your cans and your perceptions of what music can do will, if not forever be altered, will certainly be shifted a bit. Listen to it to consider the form of music, what it is that makes music, why we cherish notation, melody, and all those things.
Who knows, you may even love it.
HIPSTER RATING: On a scale of “Brian Eno” to “only listening to Gregorian chants for a whole year”, this comes in at a solid “going to rehab for a debilitating addiction to kale-juice”, so PRETTY FUCKING HIPSTER Y’HEAR.
Words: Declan Cochran