They say it's "the summer of sax," thanks to hit singles from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga that drop huge horn solos. Given that, it's tempting to frame Colin Stetson's New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges as part of the trend, especially since it's easily the best avant-garde jazz saxophone album to be shortlisted for this year's Polaris Music Prize (also: the only).
The problem: there's nothing remotely summery about it.
Recalling barren wastelands and fields of fire, Judges finds Stetson leveraging his saxophone to create the soundscape of a haunted, fevered apocalypse. The record's virtuoso performances---single takes, recorded with up to 24 microphones, no overdubs or loops---meld together rhythm, melody and noise to create a cacophony of isolation and despair. Perhaps not since Godspeed You! Black Emperor's heyday has a Canadian album been so well-suited to soundtracking the end of days.
"I've been dealing with themes of isolation in my work for years, and this time I really just wanted to delve into it, to get into the heart of how I understand isolation," explains Stetson, on the phone from Montreal.
"To be a conscious being is to be alone; you sit with your thoughts, they're your own. As much as we think we're surrounded by friends and family, when it comes down to it, loneliness is the universal trait. So I really wanted to touch on that and how, within isolation, you can find both fear and the transcendence of fear into something greater...how those work in a sort of balance, tipping back and forth."
Stetson's monstrous saxophone sound is the result of techniques he's been honing since his teenage years, making use of circular breathing and percussive valve-work to sustain his array of noise. He still gets people asking what pedals he uses, even immediately following a completely-acoustic performance.
"If I were to add anything or use electronics, in an instant the essence would be gone, and the integrity of the music would be completely shifted," he says. "I won't say it would be worse, because I don't want to sound as though I'm dogging the use of electronics; I've used them in the past and know tons of people who use them really well. But this music---its personality, its life---exists in this particular way because of the rules that are set up for it. And if I changed them, it would no longer be the same thing."
While Judges is proving a breakthrough for Stetson's original work, his session and collaboration resume hardly needs the help. His playing can be heard on albums by Arcade Fire, TV On the Radio and Tom Waits, and he's performed with LCD Soundsystem, Bell Orchestre and Sinead O'Connor. He's poised to spend much of the summer and fall performing with Bon Iver, whose acclaimed new record he also contributed to.
As for the Polaris nod, Stetson---who plans to complete his New History Warfare trilogy with an album next year---considers the distinction a wonderful welcome to Canada. Having lived in Montreal for four years now, the Michigan-born Stetson earned his permanent resident status earlier this year.
"I'm very proud of this record. It has a life of its own. I put it out there, and it's been able to touch people in a way that I'd always hoped for, but you don't necessarily ever attain with something that most people think is as challenging as this is."
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