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Jason Robinson - "Tandem"

Jason Robinson is prolific almost to a fault.

An alto and tenor saxophonist, flutist, bass clarinetist and live-electronics manipulator, the 26-year-old maverick is a founding member of San Diego's envelope-pushing Trummerflora collective, a Ph.D. candidate in music at UCSD (where he teaches a course on the history of Jamaican music) and the leader of his own jazz quartet. He is also a member of such stylistically disparate bands as Wise Monkey Orchestra, Cosmologic, Perfektomat, Spinside and Damned Dirty Apes.

"Tandem" is the arresting sequel to his 1998 debut as a leader, the post-boppish "From the Sun." As collaborative as its title implies, "Tandem" features 13 duets and one trio piece, 10 of which are completely improvised. Robinson's partners here include such internationally esteemed musicians as trombone master George Lewis and pianist Anthony Davis, featured on the album's most ambitious piece, the partly composed, mostly spontaneous "C.T." (which lasts more than 19 minutes but never overstays its welcome). Also featured is trombonist Michael Dessen, contrabassist Peter Kowald, percussionist Nathan Hubbard, guitarist Marcelo Radulovich and electronic musicians Stephanie Johnson and Hans Fjellstad.

Robinson shines whether performing furious, Coltrane-ish waves of sound ("In the Tradition"), a lovely tone poem with Dessen ("Birdrock Dub"), or mind-bending sonic forays ("A Song for Tomorrow" and "Same Old Station"). His influences - Wayne Shorter here, David Murray there, Peter Brotzman and James Newton in between - are as apparent as his potential to carve out his own niche. Provocative and rewarding, "Tandem" makes it clear that Robinson's artistic evolution should be most fruitful.

     - George Varga, San Diego Union Tribune

Composer/Improvisor/Reed player Jason Robinson is part of the San Diego music community and a founding member of the Trummerflora collective that includes many of the Accretions artists. Tandem consists of a series of collaborations (12 duo, one trio, and one solo) involving various musicians, most of whom I recognize as members of Trummerflora or other Accretions projects. Nearly all the music is improvised and, as pointed out in the liner notes, even the composed pieces rely heavily upon improvisation. There's plenty of variety on the set as Robinson treats us to both accessible jazz and abstract experimentation.

Anthony Davis on piano contributes to two tracks. Robinson's tenor sax and Davis' piano duke it out in a frantic jazz duel on "Now And Here". And "C.T.", at nearly 20 minutes, is by far the lengthiest track of the set, giving the musicians plenty of elbow room to stretch out and develop. Davis creates a measured tension with tense and moody patterns as Robinson jams in his lyrical style. The themes shift a number of times as the duo explore various jazz stylings, and there's some really beautiful and often romantic melodic sequences.

A highlight of the set is a smokin Coltrane styled duo with drummer Nathan Hubbard. Wonderful playing from both musicians. There are two tenor sax/trombone duos with George Lewis featuring more dueling (and HOT playing) as well as exploring the range of sounds produced by and through their instruments with breathing and voice. Somewhat similar are the two duos with trombone player Michael Dessen.

On the more adventurous side is the sound sculpture trio of Stephanie Johnson on electronics, Robinson on tenor, and Peter Kowald on contrabass. The barely recognizable instruments are in stark contrast to the later Robinson/Kowald duo. More creative fun can be had with Marcelo Radulovich who uses radio and electronics to create sound and noise patterns against which Robinson kicks out jazz runs. The contrasts are striking and works surprisingly well. A second track from this duo is far more atmospheric, featuring the instruments creating thematic mood swings against a single noise pattern that gradually increases in volume as the music progresses. And if the noise seems grating wait until it abruptly stops... it provides more of a shock than relief. One of my favorite tracks on the disc. Along the same lines are the collaborations with Hans Fjellestad on analog synths, who provides frenetic electronic mayhem to match Robinson's raging horns. Wild stuff and great fun. Honestly, by now I've heard a fair number of Accretions releases and this is one hot label featuring some of the most exciting and interesting modern music around.

     - Jerry Kranitz , Aural Innovations

Saxophonist Jason Robinson works and lives down in Southern California, where he collaborates with local luminaries such as Anthony Davis and George Lewis as well as visitors such as German bassist Peter Kowald. His stated aim for this release is the reconceptualization of a duo performance as "a process rather than an object." To this end, many of the tracks use sampling and live or post-performance electronic manipulations of the sound. The combination of free improvisation and electronics is not too common, particularly in the U.S., but most of the time Robinson makes it sound like a natural fit. Assembled from a variety of sessions, the lengthy set is carefully and predictably programmed to contrast the purely improvised and the electronically processed material. Sometimes, the music is just funny noises, like the beginning of "A Song For Tomorrow" with Kowald and Stephanie Johnson's eletronics, or parts of Robinson's duet with George Lewis called "Hogs & Swine." That's not a bad thing, as it brings some humor into the traditionally dour world of experimental music.

The longest track here, at 19:44, is Robinson's duet with pianist Anthony Davis on one of the few composed pieces, "C.T." A simple 4-note lick becomes the seed for a mostly restrained and serene exploration of the possibilities of the tenor/piano duo. With a metallic blur in his sound and an obsessively analytic way with a phrase in his soloing, Robinson clearly has a lot of late-period Coltrane in his sound, evident in his a cappella solo section on this track and more clearly on the passionate tenor/drums blowout "In The Tradition," with Nathan Hubbard at the traps.

     - Stuart Kremsky, Cadence

Jason Robinson is a sax/clarinet player hailing from Southern California, and he runs his own music concern, Circumvention. This is a collection of duo performances with players of acoustic and electronic instruments. Each duet is quite strong, especially when Robinson's guests deploy electronicsto match his playing. Robinson himself uses delays, complementing his tendency to use repetitive phrases in his playing. It's tempting to say he relies on repetition and variations on themes too much, but on a composed piece like the 19-minute "CT," propelled by Anthony Davis's rolling piano, he moves between overblown and fluid melodic runs. More highlights occur during the duos with Peter Kowald and George Lewis, with Kowald's ability to get deep, scraping noises from the acoustic bass matches nicely with Robinson's sustained bleats. Even better are the "duets" with electronic musicians, in which these musicians both respond and wrap themselves around Robinson's playing, making the whole sonic feel more vivid than just a reedsman and a keyboardist.

     - David Dacks, Exclaim! Canada

If such a thing as "death jazz" truly exists, you'll encounter it here as Robinson (usually on sax, but sometimes on flute/electronics/clarinet) pairs up with the other eight musicians featured here (on trombone, piano, contrabass, guitar, percussion, and a sea of electronics and analog synthesizers) for sessions of meningal scouring and mercilessly carcinogenic improvisation; speak softly, and carry a big sax.

     - Prem Lall, KUSF

These despatches from San Diego share a focus on collaboration. Robinson joins his tenor sax (and occasional flute, clarinet, electronics) with a variety of artists in duos that navigate 'through the dialogic space of negotiation, interaction and meaning'. Oetz (contrabass) has three solo tracks on his album, but the bulk sees him in three duos. The other thing they share is an accessibility and sonority without complacency which is the hallmark of the label.

Robinson combines live (and improvised) pieces with studio works (which 'rely heavily on improvisation') on his album. Rather than track by track, I'll run through by collaboration - in the order of their first combination on the set. So we start with pianist Anthony Davis - 'Now and here' opens the album strongly with a pulsing sax and rollicking piano into a more sustained and progressive piece. This combination also creates the album highlight 'C.T.' which seems to be credited to Robinson alone (it is one of only 3 pieces with a name after the track title, which seems indicative of authorship). This is a simply delightful 20 minute piece, including a piano solo in the first half and sax in the second ending with plucked piano: it is a classic/classical jazz piece and combines mellow experimental and dynamism.

There are two pieces with Peter Kowald on contrabass: 'Dark matter' has an underlying crackle-drone with bowed double bass and blowy sax that harmonise in an atonal edged slow sensuality. On 'A song for tomorrow' a scrabbly blowy squiggled duet is enhanced by Stephanie Johnson's electronica from an earlier duet. Stephanie also has a 'solo' 'Sblat' which is a fascinating musique concrete reworking of Jason.

George Lewis plays trombone which marries in with the sax sound - 'Hogs & swine' combines popping sax with squiggling trombone in a strong interplay that includes some strange barking as well as sweeter notes; aggressive sax and puttery trombones, soften and then become almost electro in the varied 'Tea with george'. With Marcelo Radulovich we enter the studio and multitracking of flute and sax and live electronics from both so that drones hums and radio samples form a backdrop for 'duets with self' and some manipulations, continued on 'Discrete jungle' where Radulovich's guitar provides some piano-like notes and a forest sample runs through an emergent and layered piece.

'In the tradition' is appropriately named as Nathan Hubbard provides a driving drum kit (with solo and quieter periods) for a varied excursion into some of the more expected jazz solo fields (you expect a piano to drop in at times). Another trombonist (Michael Dessen) works with Robinson on 'Birdrock dub' where the two instruments play slowly and almost in unison, the slight delays or extra notes adding a frisson - this is also credited and probably scored. Their second piece 'Tbone for two' is another mellow piece as the trombone takes the melody over cycling sax.

Finally, with Hans Fjellestad there are two more studio tracks - 'Telepatheomatic' and 'Black market higgle' - that are complex multilayered and provide an exciting interface between improv and studio manipulation. The added dimensions throughout this album make this a fascinating and rewarding listen that appears to have kept a wider audience sensibility in mind.

     - Jeremy Keens, Ampersand Etcetera

Jason Robinson is a saxophonist based in California. His freely improvised duos with luminaries such as pianist Anthony Davis, trombonist George Lewis and basist Peter Kowald are meant to be "floating signifiers", without fixed meaning -- which means, I think, that only a few have a compositional basis. "CT", with Davis, is a mostly melodic free improvisation, which even breaks out into a blues. The title of "Hog And Swine" is brilliantly evoked by George Lewis's trombone. Live electronics are contributed by Nathan Hubbard and Stephanie Johnson and the results are always stimulating.

     - Andy Hamilton, The Wire

This is definitely an album of moods - from almost hysterical happiness and humour all the way to the depths of experimental strangeness. Overall, it is an album of good-spirited humour, although now and again it gains some greyness (mainly down to it's often stripped-down sparseness, which seems to lurk in twilight places, but never actually descends towards depression or dread).

For the first half, they seem to say 'yes, we like self-indulgent experimentation, but we'll approach it with a broad-beaming sense of humour'. Which now and then moves it towards RUNZELSTIRN & GURGELSTOCK's field of lunacy - fragmentary voices, sound-shards falling into the mix like a downfall of shale of hailstones. The platform from which they leap into the void in a more traditional improv Jazz (and maybe for me, the fact that this isn't po-faced and superior, makes for a much more enjoyable experience). More often than not it's a stripped-down, minimal sound, utilising space and semi-silence to it's best advantage.

Makes you wonder how they approached this album - I kinda feel Mr. ROBINSON must have said 'Hey, let's make an overall joyful album, lets feed a whole plethora of styles and moods into it, and see just what comes out at the end'. We'll, whichever route they took, the sum result is a pleasure to listen to from end to end. Some fine piano and sax motifs mix with a whole collection of other instruments. Sometimes the sound if full and tuneful; sometimes it even touched the fringes of R & B; other times it can be stripped and minimal; and when it tends towards experimentation, as with "Telepatheomatic", it can be an intriguing smorgasbord of noises, all fighting for pole position.

Occasionally it reaches a deeper, more noisy area - reminding me of the first couple of CLOCK DVA albums - of decrepit life forms crawling through the ash-laden countryside of a razed Jazz past - dark, moody and strange.

Not always an even journey, this is nevertheless a goldmine of New Jazz attitudes.


     - Antony Burnham, Metamorphic Journeyman

Tandem is West Coast saxophonist Jason Robinson's second album billed to his name. But while his 1998 opus presented hard-bop compositions, this one proposes incursions into experimental realms: free improvisation, live electronics, and avant-garde jazz composition. The 14 pieces are duets with musicians young and old all based in San Diego in 2000-2001. The format of the duo is explored thoroughly in its acoustic and electronic trenches, with one track "Song for Tomorrow" even featuring improvised recombination by Stephanie Johnson of a previously recorded duet between the saxophonist and bassist Peter Kowald. Three pieces are more or less written down. Of these, the 20-minute "C.T." with pianist Anthony Davis is the most composed. It features a series of interlocking themes and moods in a soft free jazz vein. It is not the most satisfying moment this album has to offer. Look instead in the direction of the two improvs with trombonist George Lewis, wildly creative, two more with Hans Fjellestad on analog synthesizers (including "Black Market Higgle" where Robinson plays flute), and another two with Marcelo Radulovich providing electronic textures and field recordings. Robinson's playing is very strong throughout, although the nature of this album tends to bury his voice under those of the rotating cast. Tandem reflects his wide array of interests (minus reggae and funk, another story), as a result giving the impression that he is still searching for his sound. The avenues he explores hold promises, but the music still feels like a work in progress.

     - François Couture, all Music Guide

This is jazz, all right, and it's plenty damn free, but i'm betting its roots are more in the new-age jazz movement than in the free-skronk of, say, Borbetomagus, or even the old-school of roots embodied in acts like AMM. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but this does mean that it's all about free jazz as the exploration of structures and textures, not about pure blinding sonic immolation for the sheer unbridled joy of it. Robinson waxes philsophical in the liner notes about the iduoi and his entire concept behind the interplay of two performers, and he puts his cash where his tenor sax is by performing (to wildly varied effect) with a different player on every song. Some names show up more than once (trombonist George Lewis, pianist Anthony Davis), but for the most part he's truly improvising -- mostly from scratch, occasionally from something a tad more predetermined but still open enough for plenty of improvising -- with a different performer each time. My favorites include the shifting, often chaotic but never out of control riffing between him and Anthony Davis on "Now and Here," the bizarre bird-call stylings of "Hogs & Swine" (with George Lewis), the repetitive riffing and delayed call-and-response of "C.T." (again with pianist Davis), and "In the Tradition," with its shambling (but consistent) drums and the trilling uberfigures of Robinson's tenor sax. The heavy, rich drones of "Birdrock Dub" come courtesy of sparring with Michael Dessen's trombone, and the mournful, drawn-out tones are some of the best-sounding stuff on the album. One track that stands out is "Sblat," mainly because guest instrumentalist Stephanie Johnston provides electronics, and the sound alone makes it very different from the other tracks on here. Michael Dessen returns on "Throne for Two" and that's a plenty fine way to end an album as far as i'm concerned, too. The tones on this album make me think of an earlier era of jazz, and this is a good thing.

     - Dead Angel

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