Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s saxophone music is meticulous but unnerving — like the work of a serial murderer, maybe. Or a stenographer.
His shtick is simple to grasp but seems like it’d be a bear to master. The Brooklyn-based Parzen-Johnson, who’ll play the Kitty Cat Klub Sunday night, blows long tones on his baritone sax. He feeds his sax signal through a series of guitar pedals and analog synthesizers. These devices arpeggiate, split, and otherwise refract those tones into cyborg-y retro-futuristic accompaniments, depending on which pedals and buttons his feet trigger. Then he solos with the changing accompaniments. Though his solos sometimes include fleet-fingered flurries of notes, they usually unfold over only one or two chords and they’re often based on pentatonic scales, which gives them the feel of found folk song.
So the music is sort of jazz—there’s soloing, after all, with a saxophone—but not really. It’s sort of ancient (surely the first jam session was Homo erectus blowing long, pitch-bending tones into a gourd or something, I’m not gonna look it up) and sort of modern. But Parzen-Johnson’s modernism is a turn-of-the-’80s idea of “modern,” and that’s what unsettles. If Stranger Things, It Follows, and their granddaddy Halloween have taught us anything, it’s that analog synth arpeggios portend horrors beyond imagining.
All experimental sax music is a damn horror show. In the case of Colin Stetson’s score for Hereditary, this is literally true. But there are as many different ways to do weird things to saxophones as there are plots for nightmares. Stetson’s show-offy, expressionistic, roar-of-a-dying-beast approach fits the prestige A24 aesthetic. Sweden’s Martin Küchen embraces the sax as a purely mechanical contraption; his raw brutalism highlights the sounds of funneled breath and clacking keys, conjuring concrete cellars full of klowns committing terrible acts with shovels.
By comparison, Parzen-Johnson’s music is pretty accessible. (Walk into any high school band room in the country and you’ll hear kids tapping out the Halloween theme on the xylophone.) You can hum it, calmly, without the nagging feeling that you should be admiring minute disparities among the player’s breathing patterns. “Stand Still,” the climactic closing piece from his January album, Imagine Giving Up, blends the arpeggiated rhythmic drive of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run” with distorted growling, syncopated hi-hat, and mallet percussion effects achieved through electronic wizardry. Unveiling its sonic tchotchkes one by one, it swells to fill the space with the brisk generosity of a good disco song.
This linear composition style—hell, even the idea of a “climactic closing piece”—is relatively new in Parzen-Johnson world. Growing up in Chicago, he studied with reedist Mwata Bowden, once the chair of the city’s storied Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He mastered the techniques of playing precise multiphonics, where unorthodox sax fingerings make the instrument sound several notes at once, resulting in a dissonant growl, and of circular breathing, blowing reserved air into the sax while breathing in through the nose, enabling those uninterrupted super-long tones. (Parzen-Johnson’s cheeks often puff out like a miserly squirrel’s.)
His first album, Michiana, was a set of etudes for cool sax techniques—come for the exquisite breath control, stay for the bit where the artist sings while playing multiphonics. It was ponderous. He introduced electronics on his 2015 album, Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow, and the situation immediately improved. Playing off the eerie artificiality of those synth timbres, the long sax drones came alive; even the smallest fluctuation in microtone registered as an event. Still ponderous, but the kind of ponderous that makes you wanna light candles and figure out what the fuck that album title means.
Last year’s live album Helsinki 8.12.18 registered as a breakthrough and introduced two of the songs on Imagine Giving Up. In “Find the Feeling,” sax and clicks interact in unpredictable patterns that acknowledge the existence of jauntiness, like a senator recognizing the gentleman from Nebraska. “Everything Is Everything Else” is a strutting electro-pulse loosened by the saxophone’s slippery sense of pitch. The new songs suggest forebears with sparse, repetitive textures, things like Sonny Sharrock’s Guitar album and Young Marble Giants’ song “The Taxi,” but Parzen-Johnson’s sax technique and pedal rig create a sound unmistakably his — and his tunes make that sound something lots of people might want to hear.
Helsinki sags during the saxophonist’s poorly recorded stage patter, but in concert, watching him control all those sonic parameters in real time should be fascinating. And if you’re one of those well-adjusted individuals who doesn’t watch Moog Moogerfooger Freqbox tutorials on your lunch breaks, take heart: Parzen-Johnson’s tunes transcend his technique. When you find yourself humming them later, you can feel unsettled all over again.
With: Lynn Avery, Cole Pulice
Where: Kitty Cat Klub
When: 9 p.m. Sun. Feb. 23
Tickets: 21+; free; more info here