Colin Stetson has made a name for himself as an in-demand saxophone player for North American alternative acts, recording and touring with both Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. It would be remarkable were these credentials to bring Stetson’s extraordinary and uncompromising work as a solo artist to a wider audience. Too See More Light is the final installment in a trilogy of solo saxophone recordings that are stark, provocative and restless – technically impressive but also viscerally powerful and absorbing.
Stetson’s music is defiantly hard to classify. It doesn’t really meet even the most open-minded definitions of jazz, neither is it really an example of free improvised music either (there is a strong sense of composition and arrangement in these pieces). It’s entirely possible that the influence of European free jazz giants has informed Stetson’s music – the likes of Evan Parker and John Butcher loom large here, and Stetson has already released a fantastic live recording in collaboration with Mats Gustafsson this year). But Stetson’s own music has an edge and aggression that is all its own – there are times here when his multi-layered performances, captured without any overdubbing, make him sound like an entire ensemble rather than a lone saxophonist.
Musicians of the avant-garde frequently find themselves searching for new approaches to the instrument, disregarding convention and established technique in search of the unexpected and new. Stetson is a master of this – finding guttural, fuzzy, violent sounds from his saxophone (the extraordinary, confrontational and highly percussive Brute), but also finding a disarming warmth where necessary (the almost delicate conclusion to Near Mirrors). These seem to bear little kinship even to the revolutionary blaze of John Coltrane, never mind the lineage of Charlie Parker. His work on To See More Light exhibits powerful, brave juxtapositions and contrasts.
If the presence of Justin Vernon on vocals on four tracks might have been expected to offer a softer edge, this is not straightforwardly the case. Whilst his angelic chorales are readily identifiable on And In Truth, Who The Waves Are Roaring For and, to a lesser extent, on Among The Sef (enhancing the music’s spiritual qualities), his explosive barks and grunts on Brute are far from characteristic. Perhaps best of all is What Are They Doing In Heaven Today, where Vernon’s voice blends effectively with Stetson’s rapid fire arpeggios and also assumes a variety of textures of its own, from the balm of his multitracked harmonies to the more attacking phrasing of his single line verses. Whilst this could easily have shoe-horned Stetson within a more conventional song form, it actually succeeds in making Stetson’s radical ideas serve as the waves over which Vernon floats and steers course. It is tremendous. In all cases, Vernon’s vocals (supposedly the only overdubs on the recording) contribute superbly to Stetson’s wider aesthetic in that they are focused more on sound and timbre than on literal meaning or melodic or harmonic content.
The title track, perhaps Stetson’s finest solo recording to date, somehow manages to capture a loneliness and isolation inherent in solo performance whilst its subtle echoes and reverberations give the illusion of more than one performer. Over fifteen swirling, compelling minutes it develops, Stetson’s control of dynamics and timbre never less than masterful – beginning at a high pitch of intensity but building into something both majestic and fearful. The shifting contours of Stetson’s music make for unpredictable and challenging but frequently awe-inspiring terrain.