Culture | Sax and the city

Saxsyndrum brings the saxophone back to pop music

It’s hard to think of a musical instrument more constrained by negative associations in recent memory than the saxophone – as far as its use in pop music, that is. Beyond the realms of jazz, funk, and classical musical, the sax inevitably reeks of over-the-top 1980s cheese. After pop sax’s early-to-mid 1980s heyday, during which sax solos launched hit after hit into stratospheric bombast, it vanished as smoothly as it came, swiftly becoming so embarrassing that it even resisted the rehabilitating power of irony.

After reaching a peak (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) in Wham!’s 1985 “Careless Whisper,” the sax in pop seemed permanently locked into conjuring up the heady mixture of cringe-inducing awfulness and unabashed enjoyment that only hits from this particular decade of perfectly coiffed hair can provide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has since proved an unpopular choice in all forms of pop music.

Others tell a different story, though: after an unusual double occurrence of Top 40 hits featuring sax solos, Rolling Stone went as far as to label 2011 the year of “The Return of the Sax.” Its “return” still couldn’t shake its maligned 1980s associations: both Lady Gaga and Katy Perry drafted in sax greats from the past to provide novelty, retro set pieces that didn’t skimp on the cheese. On the indie rock side of the musical spectrum, Destroyer’s wonderful record Kaputt also found plenty of room for the sax. Even here, though, it served as a remnant of a bygone era, forming part of a sound that deliberately exploited unfashionable sounds from previous decades for their decadence and sleaze.

Drawing in part from the ‘retro’ novelty of pop sax, as well as its use in jazz, the duo’s fusion of musical styles aligns itself with forward-looking musicians who combine the organic and the electronic.

It’s refreshing, then, to hear the energetic interaction of the saxophone with forward-looking electronic samples and beats in the music of Montreal duo Saxsyndrum. Featuring Nick Schofield on drums and synths and David Switchenko on sax, the band just launched their debut record Future Circus at a Halloween show at Casa del Popolo. Describing their sound as “of the electro-nerd variety. Jazzy at times, lots of bass, and ripping arpeggios,” Schofield goes on to cite influences such as LCD Soundsystem and Colin Stetson, alongside “retro embracement” of Bootsy Collins and Weather Report.

Drawing in part from the ‘retro’ novelty of pop sax, as well as its use in jazz, the duo’s fusion of musical styles aligns itself with forward-looking musicians who combine the organic and the electronic. “Both members have jazz and funk roots but love the abrakazam of dance music,” says Schofield. “We’re actively trying to attain an organic certificate when playing live by drawing more from Four Tet, Pantha du Prince, and James Holden — all of whom healthily exist in the dance realm while retaining creative control in live contexts, on bold and subtle levels.” This allows for an interaction between improvised jamming and sampled beats, meaning that when playing live, the band members “partake in solos and sometimes stray from pop structures but also align [themselves] with dance-beats and big bass.”

Questions about their attitude to the use of belting sax solos in pop past and present produce jokes that suggest the band remains pretty indifferent to the more over-the-top uses of the instrument. “Regarding our brass perception, Saxsyndrum’s view is akin to safe-sax rather than ‘going raw’”; apparently, “a studded or flavoured protective layer” can help contain the “redundant risks” attendant on the sax’s “great virility.” As for its appearance in the music of Gaga and Katy Perry, Schofield jokes that, “Our niche is really just the scraps they left for us to chew on, the electro-nerd scraps,” while admitting, “We’re unintentionally heavy on the fromage, and fromage can stink of retro.” This is not quite the sax of “Careless Whisper” or Duran Duran’s “Rio,” then, but one that manages to maintains a glimmer of that same joyous “fromage.”

We’re unintentionally heavy on the fromage, and fromage can stink of retro.

One distinctly modern trait of Saxsyndrum’s debut is the rotating line-up of collaborators: each track features a different Montreal-based musician, with various vocalists drafted in to finish the songs off as they neared completion. It’s a record very bound up with the fertile local music scene. Schofield’s enthusiasm for the city’s cultural life is clear: “Montreal is definitely stimulating and is bursting with communities representing just about any area of interest. We admire organizations like CKUT for giving so many communities a chance for their voice to be heard. We’re genuinely excited by how much of our Montreal community is represented in Future Circus.”

Partly it’s this spirit of variety, of stylistic malleability, that allows the band to move away from a concern with the sax’s less-than-illustrious history during these past few decades. With “the tentatively-titled Patty-Cakes (Pat Cruvellier and Pat Latreille)” joining the band in acoustic settings, Nick acknowledges Saxsyndrum’s openness to dynamic change, claiming: “Evolution is inevitable and we thought our music should be expressible in any environment, like in a park or at a party.” Whatever the context in which it’s played, perhaps the chief novelty of their music is that its use of the sax quickly becomes much more engaging than mere novelty.


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