In titling his album thus, composer/saxophonist Matthew Burtner is — quite deliberately, as he acknowledges in the liner notes — guilty of evoking direct comparisons with Sonny Rollins’s landmark recording from 1956. Burtner’s self-constructed metasaxophone, an acoustic tenor sax enhanced by a specialized microphone and computer system, is, he maintains, every bit as groundbreaking as Rollins’s style was nearly fifty years ago.
There are folks who seem to agree. Various free and avant-jazz aficionados have praised Burtner’s work, and the University of Virginia rewarded this solo project with “generous support.” The McKnight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts see to the label on which Metasaxophone Colossus appears, Innova Records.
The average listener, however, will probably not be so sympathetic toward this disc. Nor will the fan of Sonny Rollins. Metasaxophone Colossus is a departure not only from hard- and post-bop jazz but from music in the usual sense of the word. Instead, Burtner is a “sound artist” who looks to construct moods, textures, impressions and ambience, employing technology to chart his shifts in emotion and methods of self-expression. This translates into a lot of droning feedback and irritating shrieks, reaching a climax (or appalling low, depending on how you look at it) on the aptly titled “Noisegate 67.”
“St. Thomas Phase” is a tribute of sorts to the opening track on Rollins’s album, and is the only piece here that has any semblance of coherence. The track is a jumbled, overlapping sampling of Max Roach’s spicy drumbeat and Rollins’s playing that makes it sound as if the original song is being sped up to the point of implosion. Amusing as it is, does it really take a professor holding degrees from Stanford and Johns Hopkins to “create” this? It’s like a CD skipping, or a teenager having a laugh with audio editing software.
What, then, is one supposed to take away from an encounter with Metasaxophone Colossus? How does it contribute to our edification or enjoyment? My own uncomfortable discovery was the spontaneous surge of physical rage I felt while listening: to kick over a chair, to take a lead pipe to my stereo, to shout at someone. I ached for release. Is this because Metasaxophone Colossus taps into some heretofore suppressed, aggressive, primal side of my civilized self? Or because it’s simply obnoxious rubbish?