Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Jason Robinson returns to San Francisco to play in the sfSoundSalonSeries

Last night the sfSoundSalonSeries of concerts at the Center for New Music presented the return to San Francisco of saxophonist and composer Jason Robinson. The evening was divided into two sets. In the first Robinson presented four of his compositions, playing tenor saxophone in a front line with Darren Johnston on trumpet and Steve Adams alternating among sopranino, alto, and baritone saxophones. Rhythm was provided by Robinson’s long-time collaborator Scott Walton on bass and Vijay Anderson on drums. The second set then turned to improvised explorations with the group joined by Tim Perkis on electronics.

When two sets are so different, there is always a risk that the experiences of the second set will blur the memory of the first. This was an evening in which there was so much imaginative diversity in that first set that it pushed the limit of what I would be able to hold in memory. Had I been more familiar with Robinson’s work, I might have appreciated any cross-fertilization between his composing and his improvising; but last night was a “first contact” experience. Thus, I decided to content myself with the challenge of accounting for that experience strictly on the basis of the first set.

Robinson kept his chatter to a minimum. The closest he came to acknowledging influences was to note that “Vicissitudes” was dedicated to Marco Eneidi and Mel Graves, both Bay Area jazzmen. Eneidi died this past May 24, while Graves had died on November 8, 2008. Each of them had taken adventurous approaches to making music, Eneidi through the early influence of Cecil Taylor and Graves, whose interest in John Coltrane eventually led to a “memorial composition” entitled “Three Impressions.” Commissioned by the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1987, the performance included the Kronos Quartet, as well as Joe Henderson, Denny Zeitlin, and Bobby Hutcherson.

One with the right listening background might have sensed the presence of Taylor in “Vicissitudes.” Robinson has a firm command of sharply-defined but uneven rhythmic patterns. Indeed, throughout the entire first set some of the most stirring moments would come when all three front-line horns would energetically declaim a jagged melody line in either unison or parallel octaves. (In the opening selection, “Corvus,” the octaves extended in both directions from Robinson’s tenor, up to Johnston’s trumpet and down to Adams’ baritone.) If the rhythms of these melodic incantations recalled Taylor, their enunciation through both saxophones and trumpet also suggested a nod or two to Ornette Coleman. These “themes” provided the milestones for each of the pieces, between which each of the individual members of Robinson’s group would stake out his own territory.

For those who do not consult (or need to consult) the dictionary, the noun “vicissitude” usually refers to a change of fortune with negative connotations. While there was no suggestion of an unfortunate turn of events in “Vicissitudes,” the idea of bad fortune lurked in some of Robinson’s other titles. “Persephone’s Scream” was the most explicit and the most sinister. There was less unison in this piece and more uninhibited wailing, presumably depicting Persephone when she had wandered too far from her mother’s garden and was snatched by Hades, who carried her down to his underworld realm to serve there as his wife. Another piece was entitled “Tiresian Symmetry.” While Robinson only mentioned Tiresias’ changes in body form, those who know their Sophocles know that Tiresias was the blind seer summoned by Oedipus in his investigation into the cause of the plague in Thebes. Tiresias’ “testimony” marks the beginning of Oedipus’ downfall.

There was even another reference to such investigations in the opening selection. “Corvus” is the Latin for “crow,” which has its own connotations. However, Robinson introduced the work as having been inspired by Tom Selleck’s performances in Magnum, P.I. One certainly got the sense that this was music for action scenes; but the connection between Magnum’s investigations and those of Oedipus were left unacknowledged (with good reason)! The fact is that, if there were more than a few dark elements in any of the literary connotations, the music itself was energetically upbeat and consistently so. The result was a highly satisfying hour of uninhibited free-blowing jazz that can make venturing out to that “bleeding edge” such a pleasure. 

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