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By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  Michael Jordan stands 6-feet, 4 inches tall. Outside of AT&T commercials, animated movies and post-game interviews, he rarely makes a sound. Don Stevens, founder of the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, is somewhat shorter. But the instrument he plays amid five other saxophonists has a full 4 inches on the Chicago Bulls star. And it makes a whale of a noise. Stevens employs the guttural depth of the contrabass sax, complementing the more standard instruments of his bandmates--bass, alto and tenor saxes--all the way down to the midget of the family: the soprano sax, measuring just 18 inches. And he does so in a troupe that mixes comedy, choreography and a firm grasp of music as delivered by sax.

Stevens set the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra in motion in 1981, never having to look back. The fact that audiences have been almost unanimously enthralled by the bizarre proportion--and slew of odd brass instruments--has seen the group rise in popularity from their inception. Drawing from a repertoire that includes Duke Ellington numbers as handily as Bach overtures, the NWSO have so far never failed to please and amaze.

Their heavily choreographed, brilliantly costumed live presentations cast a unique light on one of the most diverse of musical instruments--arguably second only to the human voice in sheer adaptability. But they're not at all reliant on the shock element of their rare, 100-year-old gargantuan horn. The NWSO are comprised of six highly advanced musicians who also happen to have a knack for the visual element of musical entertainment. Lots of acts claim to be "like nothing you've ever heard or seen." But until you've experienced the magic of the saxophone in the NWSO context, you've seen and heard it all before.


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