On his latest solo album, the breathless saxophone playing of Colin Stetson locks into familiar, albeit vastly impressive and evocative forms.
“All This I Do for Glory”—
The music of experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson gives you an unusually heightened awareness that you are hearing a human body laboring to produce sound. That is human breath passing its way through a metal tube, yup; those are fingers clacking on different keys to manipulate tone and pitch. This hyper-awareness can feel like a distraction: If you’ve ever been deeply stoned in mixed company, focusing more on the moving mouth of your interlocutor than the emerging words, Stetson’s music might summon an uncomfortable déjà vu. But that palpable strain is in some ways the implicit subject of his art: Any interview or feature on Stetson eventually mentions his circular breathing technique, the Herculean way he keeps forcing air into the body of his saxophone to keep his music going. His album and song titles, too, often evoke struggle on an epic scale—New History Warfare, “Hunted” and “Brute” and “This Bed of Shattered Bone.”
His latest album is called All This I Do for Glory, and the six compositions on it survey the same blasted, rocky terrain. Stetson has his approach: You either know everything about him and the demanding way he makes his music going in, or you have your mind blown by it on first contact. His saxophone playing has reshaped people’s ideas of what the instrument can sound like, how it can be played, and how it can be used, and his trio of records, New History Warfare, is thus far his defining statement.
All This I Do for Glory, by contrast, doesn’t offer a single new idea during its runtime—it’s easy to get greedy with a fearless and inventive artist and hope they stay fearless and inventive forever. Glory instead settles into grooves and revisit territories. Stetson plies us with all his best techniques—his irradiated drones emerging from his bass saxophone are like Hans Zimmer film cues all by themselves, capable of shattering bedrock. He sings through the mouthpiece of his saxophone while blowing, producing a disembodied ghost vocalist crying an eerie melodic counterpoint to his own melody. The “thump” and “click” of percussion coming from the keypads slapping the body of his horn are so tactile it feels like he is drumming his fingers directly on the grooves of your brain.
He does all of this, in fact, in the first few minutes of the opening title track, which gives the album a strange “Stetson’s Greatest Hits” feeling. Even the dirge-like processional feels like a slight echo of something he’s played before. The differences here are in degrees—the whiplash percussive crack of “Like Wolves on the Fold” is one of the most violent sounds he’s ever made, and the track itself feels inexorable, even nightmarish, in its cacophony, like a village raid witnessed through a hole in the wall. “Between Water and Wind” is almost pure percussion, and the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa pulse of “In the Clinches” feels physically violent. These moments, when his music toes the line separating music from pure texture, are some of the most vivid.
But he's dug into all of these trenches before, and at times the forward march feels like a slog. There is a whiff of old-school machismo to what Stetson does—detectable in the steel-grey imagery of his titles, the muscular drive of his pieces, and, not least, the sight of his ropey arms wrangling sound from the hulking tank of an instrument he keeps strapped to his body. So when his sax flutters skyward on “Spindrift,” it is a relief. It is one of the only pieces that feels touched by warmth and sunlight, and its redemptive spirit breaks from the more serious stuff, a flower picked and studied before the slaughter resumes.
If you come away from Glory nursing suspicions that Stetson’s thrilling work might have grown a little one-note, try his reverent remake of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony from last year, in which he enlisted a small ensemble including the violinist Sarah Neufeld and the virtuosic drummer Greg Fox to tackle the most fearsome territory of all: unabashed sentiment; or his muted full-length collaboration with Neufeld, Never Were the Way She Was, from 2015. Both of those albums bring Stetson’s well-developed ideas into thrilling contact with newer, unfamiliar ones. The repetitive throb of minimalist music is exceptionally good at taking the shape of whatever it comes into contact with. Maybe this is why he’s more inspired when he strays away from his intensely individualist solo albums—each an imposing continent of hands and breath—and instead soaks up energies with others.