Travellin’ Light

Jason Robinson
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Jason Robinson                                                                                               ©Philippe Boyer 2012

The hat trick of concurrently releasing three or more critically acclaimed albums is now a very rare occurrence, but saxophonist and composer Jason Robinson pulled it off in late 2010: The Two Faces of Janus (Cuneiform) featured a New York-based ensemble with Marty Ehrlich, Rudresh Mahanthappa and others; Cerulean Landscape (Clean Feed) was an album of duets with pianist and composer Anthony Davis; and Cerberus Reigning (Accretions), the second installment of Robinson’s solo electroacoustic “Cerberus” trilogy.

Robinson performs regularly with his Janus Ensemble, and in a variety of collaborative contexts. He has performed at festivals and prominent venues in North America and Europe with a wide spectrum of artists, including Peter Kowald, Toots and the Maytals, and Babatunde Olatunji. Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Music at Amherst College and holds a Ph.D. in Music from the University of California, San Diego. Robinson’s scholarly work examines the relationship between improvised and popular musics, experimentalism, and cultural identity. He has published articles and reviews in Ethnomusicology, Jazz Perspectives, and Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation.  

Cuneiform will release Tiresian Symmetry on September 25. The album features an expanded Henry Threadgill-inspired version of Robinson’s Janus Ensemble with Marty Ehrlich, JD Parran, Bill Lowe, Marcus Rojas Liberty Ellman, Drew Gress, George Schuller, and Ches Smith. A November-December tour has confirmed dates in New Haven (11.30 @ Firehouse 12) and Baltimore (12.2 @ The Windup Space). For tour updates and other information about Jason Robinson, visit:

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What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

I’m a saxophonist, so, generally, it’s not that difficult to negotiate carrying my instrument on a flight and storing it safely in a nearby overhead compartment.  I avoid “gate checking” my instrument at all costs – bad things may come of that. Some of the airlines have really involved and, frankly, infuriating boarding processes. Since the industry-wide practice of charging for checked baggage began several years ago, people are now trying to carry on massive suitcases full of clothes. Sometimes this means that overhead compartments fill up quickly, so it’s best to board early in the process. If they fill up, most flight crews are willing to help me out by placing the horn in a closet (rather than having it gate checked).

One story to share. After several years of flying with no problems, I found myself boarding a domestic Delta flight with my horn. The gate agent stopped me, looked down at my horn, and asked me if I “have a second ticket for that thing”! Totally flabbergasted, I admitted that I had never been asked that question before (which is true) and that I’d never had an issue trying to carry the horn onto a plane (which isn’t exactly true). Reluctantly, she allowed me to take the horn on the plane, but with a foreboding warning: I should always expect to buy another ticket for my horn!  Now some eight years later, thankfully I haven’t encountered the same gate agent or strange demand.


Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

At the moment, United and American Airlines share this onerous distinction for me. And it seems to depend on where you’re flying to/from (both domestically and internationally). I have particularly painful memories of AA flights from the US to Latin America and back ...


Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

There may be worse, but London Heathrow was an absolute nightmare for me in Summer 2011. If it weren’t for a super cool passport control agent, I would have been stranded there for eternity. I’ve also grown to seriously dislike Atlanta for connections. Too many people.


What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

Knock on wood, but I’ve been pretty fortunate in this regard. I have this recurring nightmare that I forget my horn at home, only discover such an issue as I’m about to walk on stage.


What is your worst lost baggage story?

The absolute worst was of my own doing. I was traveling by train from London to Nottingham, in the UK. I had a late gig and hang in London the night before and an early departure. I awoke from a serious nap on the train just as we arrived in my connecting city (might have been Newcastle). I jumped up, grabbed my bag, and quickly stepped out onto the platform. As the train was pulling away, I realized I had left my saxophone on the overhead rack! Completely freaked out, I screamed very loudly, which just about sent the platform agent onto the tracks as I startled him. It was too late to get the train to stop. Many dollars and hours later, I caught up with my horn at a far away station. I arrived in Nottingham something like ten hours late! But I rescued my horn ...


What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

Personally, I’ve been pretty lucky with this. I often hear from my international friends that the United States makes it quite difficult to tour as a non-US musician. And each time I go back to the US, I’m continually shocked at how inhumane our border control process seems.


Which city has the worst cab drivers?

Not sure. I tend to avoid cabs.


What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

There’s been a wide gamut from fancy 5-star hotels, to super-dingy, nasty dives. My favorite lodging experience was one year at the Jazz Las Casas festival in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. My wife and I had a lovely few days at Na Bolom, a small guesthouse and cultural center that supports the neighboring indigenous communities of that part of Mexico and Guatemala. Check it out:


Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

Yep. Whenever I can. I also make calls primarily on Skype when traveling abroad.


Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

iPod and smartphone.


Do you do your own laundry on the road?

Yes. But sometimes it can be problematic. Self-serve laundry facilities are rare in some countries, so you might be sending your t-shirts to an expensive laundry service. It’s best to make friends and borrow the use of their machines.


What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

I’m trying to forget these! Onstage feedback, questionable sound approaches, and unnecessarily long sound checks are all on the “not fun” list for me.


What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Anything that leads to food poisoning! Beautiful-looking salads in countries with water-issues can lead to many painful days of traveling while sick. I’ve been there a few times, and so have most of the people I play with. Yeah, sometimes you get strange food or greasy stuff – but I’m most afraid of that which makes you sick.


What are your three favorite venues?

Several favorites come to mind: the Fillmore in San Francisco, Théâtre Antique in Vienne (France), and the Belly Up in Solana Beach (California). There many more.  One of the more interesting venues that sticks in my mind was for the Area 51 Soundfest (in 2000), where the stage looked out over an expansive view of the top-secret US government testing range in Nevada.


Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

Having lived in California so long, I have a sweet spot for late night tacos. Playing in Mexico is great for this – some street taco stands are amazing.  I may have had the best gig-food backstage at French festivals.


Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?



What is the best city that closes down too early?

Most of them. :)


What is the best locale to have a day off?

The south of France. But I may be influenced by the fact that I’m writing this from the south of France after just having a day off while on tour.


What is your cure for jet lag?

Try to avoid sleeping while traveling to your initial destination or on your return home and then hit the sack at the appropriate time in your new location.


What is your best tip for the novice?

Eat and sleep well, boost your immune system, and interact with local communities. Learn about the cultures you visit. Enjoy the road!

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