In his definitive approach to playing the saxophone, his apparent disregard for genre boundaries and the high level of quality across the numerous records he has worked on in the past few years, jazzman Colin Stetson has been consistently catching my eye lately, seemingly out of nowhere, always taking me by surprise. Despite having unknowingly heard his playing before, through his time as a session reedist for various artists, most notably indie rock powerhouse Arcade Fire and folktronica bigwig Bon Iver, I first had a name put to these unique, grumbling saxophone stylings on Never Were The Way She Was, a stunning avant-garde jazz collaboration between Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld, whose approaches to their respective instruments melded together so seamlessly that I’m still holding my breath for another joint studio album from the duo. To finally know the musician behind the hypnotic saxophone swells that I had heard on projects by Timber Timbre, Feist, TV on the Radio, Tom Waits and more, but somehow never thought to research, piqued my interest in Stetson’s work, and ever since, I have made sure to keep an ear out for his mesmerising playing. During 2016, I picked up the vibrations of his saxophone on some of my favourite albums of the year, being employed by BADBADNOTGOOD on IV and Animal Collective on Painting With, and with Stetson releasing his own record, Sorrow, which was an experimental reinvention of Henryk Górecki’s third symphony that greatly pleased me, being a keen admirer of Górecki’s avant-garde classical stylings. Just as I was completely unaware of Sorrow until very shortly before its release, Stetson’s newest solo effort, All This I Do For Glory, found its way onto my radar just over a week before dropping. The saxophonist’s recent productive streak partially results from his recording ethic, capturing his compositions live in the studio in a single take, without the benefit of overdubs or loops (dubbed “unnaturals” by Stetson), but there is more to this approach than just a means of pumping out studio material frequently. Across many of his recent releases, some of the key contributing factors to Stetson’s signature sound arise from its unconcealed imperfections, with the artist now using these to his strength. For instance, one of the cardinal sins of a reedist is venting; the expulsion of air from the side of one’s mouth whilst playing. However, on All This I Do For Glory, Stetson actively embraces venting, placing microphones a short distance from each side of his face as to ensure that the sound of his giant gasps of air are caught on tape. This might hamper his chances of attaining a distinction were this a practical saxophone exam, but from a recording perspective, this audacious attitude towards a technical taboo for reed players pays off in a big way, allowing Stetson to create a breezy atmosphere across much of his newest record. In fact, it’s apt that he should refer to overdubbing and looping as “unnatural”, as the best word I can think of to describe the sound crafted on this album is ‘natural’. With the benefit of these slight tweaks made to the methods of capturing his raw performances, Stetson’s unique approach to the saxophone shines perhaps brighter than ever before on All This I Do For Glory, marking what seems to be a pivotal moment in the musician’s fruitful career.
Colin Stetson is seldom an artist to dwell on any one idea for too long, but he also tends to keep one foot rooted in the experiences of his past material, and, as such, All This I Do For Glory, sees the meeting of new and old ideas once again for the artist. Stetson himself has cited IDM luminaries Aphex Twin and Autechre as inspirations for a slight stylistic change of pace, and the emphasis on varied rhythms across much of his new record certainly reflects this. Look no further than the opening title track, with its sturdy, pattering percussion, not to mention the distorted effect used on Stetson’s usual grumbling saxophone to create a bassy growl that nears the tone of certain synths at times. Of the two named electronic inspirations for All This I Do For Glory, the influence of Aphex Twin has an edge over that of Autechre, with Stetson not solely evoking the artist’s electronic and IDM-based material, but also his forays into ambient music and, specifically, ambient techno. Indeed, one of the great successes of Stetson’s aforementioned utilisation of venting as a technique is the breezy atmosphere it whips up, with the musician taking this a step further in incorporating ambient stylings into his playing. The intermittent, howling melodies of the title-track that are layered on top of Stetson’s meaty baritone playing create an air like the whistling wind of a desert landscape, which is only fortified by the smattering of Eastern scales used throughout the track, with even the sluggish groove being somewhat reminiscent of West African desert blues. The following track, Like Wolves on the Fold, is almost a fully fledged ambient piece, especially during its first half, with the swirling of Stetson’s saxophone line taking the helm, accompanied only by a whirling lead melody that flutters around the top of the piece, with the performance here benefiting from the saxophonist’s venting more than perhaps anywhere else on the record. The pitter-patter of Stetson’s percussive valve-work as the composition progresses introduces a tense, bustling, slightly Latin-influenced rhythm that nevertheless does not detract from the atmospheric temperament of the piece, whilst the musician is also sure to flex his compositional muscles, as the clicking keys cut out intermittently throughout the piece’s intertwining, stop-start passages. The meeting of so many influences from such varied stylistic origins is executed with astonishing dexterity, whilst all these ideas are married under the umbrella of Stetson’s signature jazz stylings, on which he continues to build even further with the addition of new techniques to his hefty arsenal.
Nonetheless, Stetson certainly retraces some familiar ground on All This I Do For Glory, but never with the exact same mindset of his previous visit. Take the ambient but rapidly wavering arpeggios of Spindrift, for example, which hark back to the experimental jazz stylings of the artist’s New History Warfare series, specifically tracks like The righteous wrath of an honorable man, but here, they are more maximalist in execution, despite being more minimalist structurally speaking. In a manner, the composition itself, despite being longer than the bulk of the tracks from across the New History Warfare releases, is notably more refined and contained, whilst the general mood of the piece, through the dancing ambiance that hovers in the background, is much more grand and ethereal. In the Clinches is similarly reminiscent of Stetson’s previous solo undertakings, with his circular breathing and use of multiphonics being as bewildering as ever, but with an all new flame being ignited in the biting rhythm and moaning lead melody, packing what is maybe the most overwhelming amount of tension on the album into this brief piece. However, this suspense is rivalled by the sporadic percussive stabs of The Lure of the Mine and the restless groans of Stetson’s saxophone on Between Wind and Water. If anything, it’s often the instances in which Stetson retraces his steps slightly that the listener gets their clearest glimpse at just how much his artistry has evolved on All This I Do For Glory, with his already definitive sound flourishing further into an almost indefinable amalgamation of the musician’s innovative ideas.
The fluttering melodies and hypnotic rhythms of previous Colin Stetson material appear in full force on All This I Do For Glory, but almost in an unrecognisable fashion at times, masked by the beautiful layers of ravishing, ambient textures, created by both Stetson’s saxophone and the man himself. In continuing his exploitation of the natural imperfections that come with playing music, Stetson seems to be making his own body into an instrument, which may not be all that foreign to him, given that the strength behind his work has always been centred in the bellowing bowels of his body. It’s almost hard to fathom that the grandiose sound of All This I Do For Glory could have been captured as a series of single-take live studio recordings, with Stetson only enlisting the aid of his saxophone and a set of strategically-placed microphones, as the album seems so huge in breadth, but therein lies the mastery of Stetson’s stylings. The limitations of being only one man seem not to phase Colin Stetson, and All This I Do For Glory stands testament as a crowning achievement of the guts and spirit with which he approaches his craft.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10