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Colin Stetson’s ‘All This I Do For Glory’ is his strongest record yet

| Tuesday, May 2, 2017

1493670413-7d9f09e570f3619Lindsey Meyers | The Observer

If Greek tragedies are the fossils of human experience, documenting our emotional range with melodramatic flourish, then Colin Stetson’s oeuvre is an osteological study of humankind’s potential, from our glorious peaks to our basest vices. Perhaps classical antiquity is populated by larger-than-life characters casting the long shadow of Platonic ideals — of suffering, as it happens. Yet we nonetheless — or perhaps all the more — see ourselves reflected in the triumphs and disgraces of characters like Antigone, Oedipus or Clytemnestra. How else could we explain their contemporary resonance?

Stetson’s breakthrough album trilogy, “New History Warfare,” approaches similar themes with an equally grandiose brush. “Judges,” the trilogy’s second and strongest entry, sonically portrayed an antihero’s moral angst, tackling the opacity of ethics at the fork of heroism and villainy. On lush, vaguely chthonic sound sculptures with titles like “The righteous wrath of an honorable man” and “From no part of me could I summon a voice,” Stetson psychologically disembowels the superego in our most familiar archetypes.

The experience is both harrowing and liberating. Insofar as classical antiquity survives into the present day, these narratives are the vertebrae to the spine of Western civilization, of which our lived experience is the flesh and blood. As a result, the vaguely neoclassical sensibility of Stetson’s avant-garde jazz does not feel intellectually removed, but rather remains both poignant and imminent.

The virtuoso saxophonist maintains this familiar aesthetic on his latest record, “All This I Do For Glory” — perhaps his strongest release yet. The title does not confess but rather demonstrates Stetson’s favorite themes. According to his webpage, the record is “a reasoning and exploration of the machinations of ambition and legacy.” In other words, through the provocative title, Stetson merely whispers what already lies quietly in the heart.

Methodologically, nothing has changed since “New History Warfare.” As with previous records, each track was recorded in one live take without the use of overdubs or loops. Stetson’s ability to render the impression of a full ensemble using only the saxophone and a hive of strategically-placed microphones is more impressive than ever.

Sure, we heard the semblance of thumping drums, warbling synths and spectral voices seeping in and out of “Judges.” But on the self-titled opening track to “All This I Do For Glory” — and throughout the record — every sound is impossibly crisp: three distinct types of percussion, an angular bass refrain and a memorable “vocal” lead interact as though actually separate. The techno-slanted “Between Water and Wind,” moreover, is perhaps Stetson’s single most forward-looking track of all time. By drawing from the avant-garde playbook of electronic musicians like Aphex Twin and Autechre, he crafts the track’s mind-boggling, jaw-dropping churn.

Perhaps it would be easier for Stetson to hire an ensemble rather than fill the role of every cook in the kitchen. But, rather than a limitation, his solitary approach is a fruitful self-imposed constraint. On “All This I Do For Glory,” as on every other Stetson record, the claustrophobic quality of a single sax’s bursts echoing off its own body complements the record’s introspective subject matter. Each separate expression of the wind instrument sounds like an inner voice in profound conversation with itself.

Besides, much of Stetson’s unique appeal comes from that inimitable sound of a sax trying to play the guitar (and the violin and the piano and the drum kit). Plainly put, there Stetson’s records have no musical comparison, although in terms of sheer ambition he might stand eye-to-eye with Ornette Coleman.

To be sure, Stetson’s records are more cyclically meditative than improvisational, but — with contemporaries like Matana Roberts — the saxophonist is nonetheless pushing jazz in new directions, questioning not form but function: What new can a saxophone do?

He may have a long way to go, but on “All This I Do For Glory” Colin Stetson begins to answer that question.


Artist: Colin Stetson

Album: “All This I Do For Glory”

Label: 52Hz

Favorite Track: “All This I Do For Glory,” “Between Water and Wind”

If you like: Ornette Coleman, Matana Roberts

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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