Graded on a Curve:
Joseph Shabason,
Aytche

It’s Joseph Shabason who plays the somewhat yacht-evoking saxophone on the last two albums from Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, but his first solo effort is onto something decidedly different. Aytche can be succinctly tagged as an ambient jazz recording, but it easily surpasses the expectations for such a merger, exhibiting a consistent desire for experimentation amid sonic environments that transcend mere tranquility and smoothness. It’s out now on LP, CD, and digital from Western Vinyl.

There was really no reason to expect Joseph Shabason’s solo debut to be some sort of outgrowth from his work on Destroyer’s Kaputt and Poison Season, any more than one would assume a direct formal link between the solo work of Shabason’s saxophone peer Colin Stetson’s solo recordings and the numerous albums he’s guested on.

But in diving headfirst into a stylistic hybrid that on paper will likely produce as many (or more) doubters than eager listeners, Shabason, who in addition to lending sax to Destroyer, The War on Drugs and others also contributes synth to the unabashedly throwback electropop act DIANA, does pull off a maneuver somewhat akin to Bejar’s elevation of soft-rock textures to art-rock status.

Helping to raise Aytche’s worth is a lack of strain through deliberateness, as the nine tracks frequently travel far afield of the ambient jazz zone, though it takes a little while to get there. Opener “Looking Forward to Something, Dude,” with its recordings of birdsong, processed sax drift, and occasionally skittering lines conjuring images of a horn being played in a rainforest, fit into the imagined ambient jazz bag quite well, but with streaks of subtle unusualness assisting in the avoidance of the trite.

Specifically, the blowing here, if engaging with tones one could hear oozing from the PA system in a New Age supplies store, is never defeated by the bland expected. In the title track, a repeated keyboard line evocative of drowsy techno gets introduced to a mixture of sax and muted trumpet, the latter played by Shabason’s Destroyer colleague J.P. Carter, and the sound is likely to trigger thoughts of Jon Hassell or an alternate path taken by Miles Davis upon his post-’70s comeback.

“Neil McCauley,” named after Robert De Niro’s character in Michael Mann’s Heat, is the closest Aytche gets to standard ambient jazz, the track infused with saxophone a late-night DJ might call smoky amongst spare piano phrases and intermittent tangles of bass, but per the title cop, the mood is cinematic, like a filmmaker attempting to deepen the hue of a Los Angeles sunset hours before someone commits murder.

It’s the squalling electric guitar in “Smokestack” that throws the record’s first curve ball; some will call it Shabason’s wildest pitch, though underneath the noise, the sax returns to the motif of the opening track and presents the album with a theme. More birdsong, hand drumming, electronic keyboard tones, and what sounds like a can of spray paint provide the foundation for more processed sax exploration in “Tite Cycle,” as the sound of water (which could just as easily be the crackling of a campfire), more birds, and for a moment a distant barking dog, enhance the minimalist sax and drum cycles of “Long Swim.”

Shabason’s soloing in “Long Swim” is near the record’s best, and by this point the seriousness of his undertaking is solidly established. “Westmeath” only strengthens matters by introducing fragments of pre-recorded speech rising and submerging in an atmosphere, that like the title track, lingers closer to electronic music than to ambient jazz.

Opening with a bit of reed flutter reminiscent of recent development in avant-garde saxophone, “Chopping Wood” does return to the jazz realm, a reengagement that’s heightened with threads of skronk as the overall mood becomes increasingly tense. Near the end, everything subsides except for the sound of the titular activity.

It’s an altogether intriguing experience leading into the guitar and drums free jazz blitz of “Belching Smoke,” the intensity diced and dialed back in spots as Shabason returns to his opening sax theme once more, bringing the album to a conclusion at once unpredictable and familiar. With Aytche, the saxophonist has successfully quashed any doubts over the judiciousness of his endeavor, and leaves this writer’s ear eager for more.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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