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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Jason Robinson
The Two Faces of Janus
Cuneiform Rune 311

Jason Robinson
Cerberus Reigning
Accretions ALP51

Jason Robinson + Anthony Davis
Cerulean Landscapes
Clean Feed CF198CD

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.
–Ed Hazell


Schlippenbach Trio
Bauhaus Dessau
Intakt CD183

It might be said that the Bauhaus was Modernism, replete with all its possibilities and contradictions. It was founded in 1919 in Weimar, that small, uncomplicated city that came to symbolise the hedonistic decay of a whole culture, and it transferred later to Dessau and thence to Berlin. The central paradox of the Bauhaus, and perhaps the reason why it sums up so much of what went awry with the Modernist project – or merely illustrated that entropy applies as much in design aesthetics as in physics – is that a school set up to transform and revolutionise the built environment in the light of a new industrial logic should in its early days have delivered nothing more substantial than wallpaper.

The word itself has become a metaphor for the unconsidered and overlooked, a preterite craft form that might conceivably challenge our senses but merely demonstrates our quotidian inattention. Musical ‘wallpaper’ is the sibling of Muzak, but without the mind-changing intent.

Out of the various ideological squabbles over the Bauhaus manifesto, some of which sound trivial to non-participants, one resounds down the years. Mies van der Rohe, who took over the school in 1930, defined its architectural project as the “spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.” What better way of describing improvised music? How perfect a tag-line for the work of the Schlippenbach Trio, which has been in operation for forty years now, delivering not so much a body of work in the sense of an annotated list of opuses, as an architectural artefact, an intellectual space to which the three members – pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Paul Lovens – return annually, adding a brick here and a buttress there.

There is no sign that this most recent recorded performance, documented at the reopened Bauhaus Dessau in November 2009 (ninety years after Gropius first convened his school) has entered into its decorative phase or that the trio is now only concerned with “finish” rather than structure. But it’s a gentler trio and one that relies ever more openly on melodic shapes and jazz-derived tonalities. The group’s earliest works, including the mighty Pakistani Pomade, are among the finest and most important in European jazz and improv, but there is a magisterial cast and a humanity to Bauhaus Dessau which, like many of the trio’s more recent recordings, seems to reposition the work of previous decades, suggesting order beneath the tangled surfaces, deep foundations beneath the teetering superstructure.

There’s a loose consensus that Schlippenbach’s music has undergone a “change” or “evolution” in recent years, returning to aspects of composition that embrace Thelonious Monk’s oeuvre and the Second Viennese School. This is true only if one considers “recent” to mean forty years ago. The pianist’s dogmatically free period lasted a very little time indeed and was largely confined to his work with the unleashable Globe Unity Orchestra. From 1970 onwards, Schlippenbach had to a large extent turned away from total abstraction and was showing an interest not only in formal compositional principles (serialism, orthodox sonata form, aspects of ricercare) but also in renewing his own initial contact with early and modern jazz, blues and boogie-woogie.

It’s perhaps more surprising to discover Evan Parker moving in the same direction, particularly when the work of his own leadership has moved steadily into the spectral explorations of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. As ever, though, when Parker concentrates on tenor, his deep roots in the jazz of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy (the last of these also a profoundly important source for Schlippenbach) come to the fore. And so, too, with Lovens, who shares with Tony Oxley and Eddie Prévost the ability to give free time the forward-leaning energy of strict-time playing. If anyone seriously doubts the ability of this venerable trio of free jazzers to approximate a hard-driven swing, they should scroll forward to the middle of three long tracks here, which develops into a strange Latinate groove, still Cubist rather than Cuban, but unmistakably driven by dance rather than the broken march of free orthodoxy. Or they might go straight to the final track, which is in all essence a ballad, with long looping lines that seem to be cupped by Lovens’ bright but impeccably controlled cymbals. As always on these occasions, it is Schlippenbach who asserts himself most strongly. The forty-minute opening track gives the other two every opportunity to make a statement, and Parker responds with burly lyricism, but it’s the piano that is calling the shots, shaping an arc – or arch – that is capable of supporting far more musical information than its slight, almost fragile, material would suggest was possible.

After 40 years, do they repeat themselves? The truthful answer is yes. There is a recognizable register for the Trio. It emerges towards the end of that first track, with Parker smearing split-tones over the music’s surface and again towards the end of the final track when these men, who meet at least once a year but sometimes no more often than that, seem to go into a huddle, recognizing that time is passing and there is news to share. At such moments the Trio can seem impressively impenetrable. For the rest, though, it has become generously communicative and alert to whoever passes through its portals.
–Brian Morton


David S. Ware
AUM Fidelity AUM064

Originally intended as a celebration of David S. Ware's five decades as a saxophonist, the studio session for Onecept was delayed by his kidney transplant in May of 2009. In its place, the live concert recording Saturnian (AUM Fidelity) was issued to herald his triumphant return to performing, an unaccompanied solo set that found him playing his reliable tenor alongside the rare saxello and stritch.

Ware indicates in the liner notes to Onecept that he wants his music to allow listeners "to start feeling, sensing, intuiting something beyond their individuality, to take them in the direction to something beyond, something that transcends their individuality, not outside them, something within them." With this in mind, Ware reinforces a direct link to the ground-breaking work of John Coltrane's final years, whose spiritually inspired musical explorations pushed well beyond the confines of tradition. Delivering his own trenchant statements with compelling fervor, Ware conveys the conviction of a devout believer whose recent experiences have granted him an increased awareness of his own mortality.

Rejoined by William Parker and Warren Smith, who both appeared with Joe Morris on the saxophonist's recent quartet offering, Shakti (AUM Fidelity), the sparseness of the trio setting places Ware's mastery of saxophone technique in stark relief; his colossal tone embodies a multitude of historical antecedents, delivered with a quicksilver dexterity that pushes the limits of endurance. Reprising the instrumental variety featured on Saturnian, he alternates between tenor, saxello and stritch throughout the session, with the reedy timbres of the later two horns exuding a subtle Asiatic tonality that sonically alludes to his interest in Eastern philosophy and religion.

Conceptually linked by spiritual concerns, the album's nine new pieces were spontaneously recorded without rehearsal, emphasizing the date's sense of urgency. With a burnished and forceful  tone on all three horns, Ware channels his celebrated volcanic intensity into incisive, circuitous cadences, juxtaposing staccato and legato phrases with altissimo cries and multiphonic torrents.

Building on their longstanding relationship, Parker's pliant pizzicato and regal arco shadows Ware's cathartic declarations, offering ample space for Smith's nuanced trap set work and his dramatic accents on timpani, which lend a ceremonial air to the proceedings. Parker and Smith's fragmentary rubato dialogues vacillate in density and tempo from pointillist accents to roiling barrages, providing Ware's salvos with an elastic forward momentum. Despite Ware's reputation as a firebrand, the crux of the record rests on the trio's affable interplay, manifesting in virtually telepathic three-way exchanges.

Ware's rise from loft era apprentice to veteran bandleader has cemented his place in jazz history. Since the dissolution of his highly revered Quartet, Ware has branched off into more diverse territory, as documented on the string-augmented Threads (Thirsty Ear) and his recent AUM Fidelity releases. Fortified by Ware's new lease on life, Onecept documents a pivotal chapter in the ongoing development of one of today's more important artists.
-Troy Collins

New World Records

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