Jason Robinson – The Two Faces of Janus (Cuneiform)
Jason Robinson – Cerberus Reigning (Accretions)
Jason Robinson + Anthony Davis – Cerulean Landscapes ( CF198)
It’s hard to get a handle on some musicians. Their CDs trickle out one at a time on different small labels with haphazard distribution. One or two might cross your path and catch your attention, but it takes a concentrated effort to track down a representative sample. Or the whimsical forces of the jazz “business” and artistic output can converge – as they have for saxophonist-composer Jason Robinson this fall – and several simultaneous releases can make a clearer picture snap into view.
Three new CDs by Robinson – a wide-ranging collection of ensemble pieces, a subtle and thoughtful duet with pianist Anthony Davis, and a solo electro-acoustic album – paint an impressive picture indeed. A Californian now based at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Robinson brings a penetrating intellect and a warm expansive sound to each of these projects. He has well developed ideas specific to each setting and it’s the clear thinking behind them as much as the genuine feeling he conveys that mark him as an exceptional new voice.
Clearly he’s a composer and improviser with skill and ambition that have far outstripped the recognition he’s received. Eyes in the Back of My Head, the 2008 Cuneiform release by Cosmologic, the collaborative quartet of which he’s a member, probably garnered wider attention than other release he appeared on. His own albums, including Tandem (Accretions), a 2002 duet album with heavy hitters such as George Lewis, Davis, and Peter Kowald, and another solo album have languished in obscurity.
On The Two Faces of Janus, Robinson uses reed players Marty Ehrlich, Rudresh Mahantappa, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer George Schuller in different combinations ranging from duos to full sextet. As a composer, Robinson, who holds a Ph.D. in music from the University of California, San Diego, uses his learning in the best possible way: as a foundation for his own original creativity. The legacy of bebop lingers in the long, twisting melody of “Return to Pacasmayo” and you can sense the presence of Ellington in the sensuous voicings of “Tides of Consciousness Fading,” but ultimately what you hear is Robinson. His compositions are well constructed, with every note accounted for and every phrase in place, which gives them a lyrical economy and clarity that admirably focuses and sets up the soloists. “The Elders,” for instance, is a piece that ebbs and flows over shifting tempos and never seems to settle harmonically. Robinson and the rhythm section keep the entire performance floating in the ambiguous space defined by the composition. The focus is also evident on two brief duets with Ehrlich, “Huaca de la Luna,” which is confined primarily to exploring timbre, and “Huaca del Sol,” which is an exercise in linear counterpoint. As a soloist Robinson has a warm, friendly tone, assertive, but not aggressive, and a modest way of delivering really swinging and often brilliant ideas, sort of like a modern day Hank Mobley. On “Paper Tiger,” played with just Gress and Schuller, and “Cerberus Reigning,” with the quartet again, he doesn’t rub his solos in your face, but if you pay attention, there’s plenty to hear.
Robinson’s sense of musical architecture as a composer and soloist makes him a good match for pianist Anthony Davis, with whom he studied at the University of California, San Diego. Cerulean Landscape is a deeply engaged conversation, subtle, informed, and thoughtful without being pedantic or stuffy. The music has a satisfying balance and there’s an intimate glow in the lively interplay play of ideas between them. “Andrew,” for example, sets up two polar extremes – a Cecil Taylor like theme of wide intervals and a snaking Tristano-like line. Robinson and Davis interweave the two approaches in a variety of ways, sometimes alternating hot and cold phrases, sometimes letting passages crescendo or decrescendo, sometimes fusing the two within the same phrase. “Translucence” (which features Robinson’s sumptuous alto flute playing) and “Shimmer” draw on Ellington and Mingus as well as Debussy and Janacek, and they use the resulting harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary – sort of jazzy, sort of not – in graceful and articulate performances. Davis dusts off “Of Blues and Dreams” for a well-paced, architecturally solid exploration that skillfully blends writing and improvising.
On Cerberus Reigning, Robinson ventures into territory that’s quite different from the Cuneiform and Clean Feed discs. The second of a projected trilogy of solo performances, this disc features Robinson on tenor and soprano saxophones and alto flute, all electronically manipulated in real time. The music, as he points out, is less about the individual instruments and more about the performer who is generating and structuring sound. As he’s shown on his two other fall 2010 releases, Robinson is has a highly developed ability to structure music, either spontaneously or in writing, so each track is shaped into a pleasing whole. The electronic manipulations form structural elements, looped samples create patterns, tempos are controlled, and distorted lines make melodic contours impossible to make any other way. But tone color and texture play larger roles here than on the other two discs. Robinson uses the technology to create a huge palette of electro-acoustic sound, ranging from glassy drones to Jew’s harp twangs to watery bubbles. As Robinson writes in the liner notes, he’s a fan of Greek and Roman mythology and science fiction, and rethinks certain stories to “create new myth-science narratives.” Sometimes sounds that resemble the wind or waves or a foghorn evoke settings that reinforce the dreamlike mythic narrative that loosely guides the disc. On three tracks he performs duets with a program that generates music independent from or in response to his instrumental input. For Robinson, the technology becomes a means to extend the storytelling power of jazz, expand sonic possibilities, and build structures unique to the fusion of acoustic and electronic sound production. It’s this ability to consider and simultaneously work with so many aspects of the situations he creates for himself that mark Robinson as a composer and performer to watch.