Saxophila: CD

This review was published on: October 3rd 2018

Want to listen to a few old classics, nicely arranged for sax quartet, safe in the knowledge that you’ll come away
humming the tune? Well this definitely is not the disc for you! This is brand-spanking new music, 21st century composition, fluid and exhilarating sound worlds – all packaged into an album that’s as cutting edge as the latest Apple iPhone release (other brands of smartphone are available).

Saxophilia (, with their self-titled album released on Redshift Records, are a Vancouver-based quartet. Formed in 1996, they comprise Julia Nolan (sop), Kris Covlin (alto), David Branter (tenor) and Colin MacDonald (baritone). They’re Canadian, the music they play is Canadian, they’re supported by Canada Council for the Arts, and this recording really sets the standard for what’s happening with Canadian new music right now.

In their own words: ‘This recording represents the best of 20 years of devotion to newly created Canadian works. It was an intensely prepared labour of love for Saxophilia. We think it contains some of the strongest pieces composed for saxophone quartet in the 21st century, encompassing widely varying approaches to the capabilities of the saxophone quartet. Explore and enjoy!’

The album opens with Peter Hannan’s Fast Truck Bop, a five-movement work that has its origins in a previous piece Hannan wrote which involved recording live traffic noise then notating it for instrumental performance. The result is a fast-moving, often hypnotic piece that grabbed me from the outset. Dividing it into five short movements was particularly effective I felt, as each movement has its own individual identity. The repetitive fragments of melody are frantic and anxious in much of this work, but the sublimely gentle, meditative fourth movement made my lips start aching in sympathy just listening to three minutes of long low notes.

Next up is Derek Charke’s Last Call, premiered by Saxophilia in 2002, then Obsess by Dorothy Chang (2003) and Gylaling written by John Burke (2004), also a Saxophilia commission. The fifth and final work on the album is Triple Saxophone Quartet composed by Saxophilia’s baritone player, Colin Macdonald, which can be performed with one live quartet and two pre-recorded. ‘With Vigour’ (I) is cool, with funky sounds utilising loopstation-esque writing that halts abruptly to give way to the rather softer ‘With Tenderness’ (II). This movement lets us hear multiple layers of sound, little bits of melody repeated and passed around the ensembles with care. It’s the ‘close your eyes and chill’ movement, before ‘With Fervour’ (III) brings us moments of Stravinsky-like ‘groove’, alongside motifs popping up as rapidly as meerkats in the sand, leading the disc to a climatic finish.

This piece, like the entire disc, isn’t just ‘fire in a pet shop’ contemporary music that’s overly complex for the sake of it. It’s melodic, authentic and makes sense to me. It has heart and soul. The saxophony is of the highest quality throughout and the recording is real: keys clicks, breath sounds and the rest. For me, more programme notes would enhance the listening experience, but I guess that’s what the internet is for, and, like the packaging of that Apple iPhone, less is more.

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at Flat 51, Parkview Apartments, 122 Chrisp Street, London, E14 6ET. Email: membership(@) Tel: 01642 769 558

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