Exposé Online banner

Urban Sax — Urban Sax
(EPM Musique FDC 1124, 1977/1993, CD)

Urban Sax — Fraction sur le Temps
(EPM Musique 982042, 1985/1991, CD)

Urban Sax — Spiral
(EPM Musique FDC 1125, 1991, CD)

by Peter Thelen, Published 1994-10-01

Urban Sax Cover artFraction sur le Temps Cover artSpiral Cover art

Legend has it that the idea for Urban Sax came into being around 1973, when the town of Menton in the south of France commissioned Gilbert Artman to reverberate the town with four amplified fixed frequency generators converging on a stage featuring eight saxophone players, as part of a promotion for a local classical music festival. The funds dried up before it ever happened, but the seed was planted. By 1976 Artman had assembled sixteen sax players that were interested in his ideas, and Urban Sax was officially born. When performing, the saxes were grouped together on separate stages, sometimes at fair distances to utilize the reverberation from nearby buildings, etc. to maximize the effect of the sound. The group later grew to thirty sax players, a mixture of altos, tenors, baritones, and basses, each player dressed in bizarre white outfits with masks and strange helmets, spread out over great distances, sometimes well beyond the line of sight. Eventually this necessitated the use of each player wearing FM radio receivers so that a central 'conductor' could give instructions. One of the most famous concerts was staged with groups of players at each station of the Paris Metro, the saxes reverberating down the walls of the subway from one station to the next. What? (You might be asking) Thirty saxophones? Keep in mind these are not thirty individual sax playes whipping out solos all at the same time, but instead something akin to a tightly controlled orchestra all working towards one goal, a single resultant sound, comparable in spirit to the massed guitars of Glenn Branca, but the end effect being closer to an acoustic answer to ambient electronic music, or early Tangerine Dream. Some comparisons to mid-period Art Zoyd could also be made on the later Urban Sax albums, where choirs are integrated into the sound. Waves of interference are set up between the saxes, one building on another, creating a total wall of sound that is both soothing and hypnotic, full of warmth and life.

The first Urban Sax record was released in 1978, utilizing sixteen players: one soprano and the rest split between altos and tenors. It contains two sidelong pieces called "Part One" and "Part Two." Similarly, the second album from '79 featured thirty saxes including two baritones and a bass, plus choirs and gong — the sound becoming more full and varied, and less foreboding. Again, it contained two sidelong pieces, this time "Part Three" and "Part Four." All of these first two albums have been reissued on a single CD, simply titled Urban Sax.

Although it wasn't mixed and released until 1985, Fraction sur le Temps was recorded in 1982, the lineup at that time having grown to thirty-eight saxes, a string quartet, four guitars, six percussionists, two keyboards, and a seventeen member choir. The music here, consisting of six shorter to mid-length pieces, is far more varied, offering the wider variety of sounds and textures available with the expanded lineup.

Spiral is a more recent album, again consisting of eight short to mid-length pieces, the major change being the prominence of the twenty-two piece choir, which shares the spotlight equally with the saxes, and three vibraphones, all which results in a far more ethereal and majestic sound than its predecessors.

All of these were briefly available around 1991, possibly in a limited edition run but were near impossible to find. Apparently this is a second edition which has been released in more sufficient quantities. The artwork and photos in the booklets give insight into the nature of the Urban Sax performances. For the beginner, I'd recommend Fraction sur le Temps as an ideal starting point, although every one of these is essential.


Filed under: Reissues, Issue 5, 1993 releases, 1977 recordings, 1991 releases, 1985 recordings

Related artist(s): Urban Sax

Latest news

2020-07-22
Tim Smith RIP – Tim Smith, leader of the eccentric band Cardiacs, has died at the age of 59 after many years of health problems. Cardiacs was known for intense and complicated music that combined punk energy with the rhythmic and harmonic sophistication of progressive rock. » Read more

2020-07-12
Judy Dyble RIP – Singer-songwriter Judy Dyble, who was a founding member of Fairport Convention and one of the distinctive voices of the 60s folk revival in Britain, has died at the age of 71. Her passing came at the end of a long illness, though which she continued to work. » Read more

2020-07-06
Ennio Morricone RIP – Famed composer Ennio Morricone has died at the age of 91. The creator of scores for more than 500 movies, some of his works have become the most recognizable sounds in the history of cinema. His soundtracks for Sergio Leone's Westerns made from 1964 to 1971, are iconic landmarks in film music, but he also composed for dramas, comedies, and other genres. He won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 2016 for The Hateful Eight. » Read more

2020-06-14
Keith Tippett RIP – One of the giants of British jazz has left us. Keith Graham Tippetts, known professionally as Keith Tippett, died today at the age of 72. His work from the late 60s into the 70s and beyond includes some of the greatest jazz produced in the UK, and stands as an impressive oevre to this day. » Read more

2020-05-15
Phil May of The Pretty Things RIP – We were saddened to learn that Phil May, lead singer and founding member of The Pretty Things, has died at the age of 75. The band's 1968 album S.F. Sorrow is one of the enduring classics of the psychedelic era, and the group existed in various forms until finally retiring in 2018. » Read more


Previously in Exposé...

Mezquita - Recuerdos de mi Tierra – Spain's late 70s "progressive rock" scene was flowing in the abundance of new and creative talent and this short lived band was practically at the zenith of this genre's adherents. A heavily folk...  (1994) » Read more



Listen & discover



Print issues