Tenor‘s cover artwork, featuring an x-ray image of Bertrand Denzler’s instrument in its case, is not simply an attractive and intriguing design choice. The photograph is a symbol of Denzler’s approach to his instrument, a inside-out consideration of the core construction and behavior of the saxophone, and a exploration of its capabilities at their most basic level. Like most of the instruments played on Potlatch releases, Tenor‘s tenor is stripped of its conventional musical purposes. This is hardly new ground for the label, but even for Potlatch, this is some pretty austere stuff.
The most striking quality of Tenor is its simplicity. The album’s title is a blunt indicator of Denzler’s focused approach; a track name like “Airtube” takes things even further. Denzler’s style is unromantic, hinting at the systematic, à la the demonstration records that often accompany a new or unconventional instrument into the marketplace. Sounds are produced in discrete portions and buffered by silence, each track a series of variations on a particular timbre or approach. “Filters” and “Signals” explore longer tones, each disparate from the last, but presented in a succession that suggests a parade of the instrument’s possibilities. Permutations in breathing and fingering are used to cause mircotonal shifts, ragged decays, and blatty slabs of gristle. When Denzler settles momentarily on an especially high-pitched whistling or coarsely abrasive growl, the sounds can be bracing, but there’s never a sense that the proceedings are even slightly out of control. Even on “Airtube,” which focuses on hushed, breathy emissions and percussive clicks and pops, the canvas is kept in order; it’s Tenor‘s most unpredictable track, but still a string of spotlit sounds. There can be a mild tension in awaiting the next installment in Denzler’s sequences, though there’s also ample chance for attention to lapse and the mind to wander. As with much of the music of this ilk, attentive listening provides the most bountiful rewards. It’s up to listener to decide if the effort is worth it.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Tenor resides too far toward the end of a particular spectrum. I’ll vigorously argue with anyone who asserts that the onus of the artist is simply to acquiesce to his or her audience’s demands. Ease of intake and digestion are not the only way to judge food, nor should they be the primary considerations in assessing the merit of an artistic work. Still, each reader, watcher, or listener has their own internal sense of where to draw a line, when to decide that the ratio of effort to reward has proven too lopsided. For some, it’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for others Finnegan’s Wake; some may balk at 2001, while others can’t get past Tarkovsky. In this way, Tenor may prove to be a bear for even some seasoned Potlatch partisans, not because it’s hard to listen to, but because it may be too easy not to.