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Thu, Oct 17


The Drake

Jason Robinson's Ancestral Numbers

Jason Robinson (sax, flute), Michael Dessen (trombone), Joshua White (piano), Drew Gress (bass), Ches Smith (drums)

Jason Robinson's Ancestral Numbers
Jason Robinson's Ancestral Numbers

Time & Location

Oct 17, 2024, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM

The Drake, 44 N Pleasant St, Amherst, MA 01002, USA

About The Event

Ancestry, like music, is a concept inextricable from the passage of time. In music, each performance is a convergence of past (influence, experience, practice) and present (emotion, atmosphere, improvisation). Each one of us represents a similar convergence, as our very existence conveys the biological, genetic and experiential influences of our ancestors into our lived present. With his expansive new project, Ancestral Numbers, saxophonist, flutist and composer Jason Robinson translates his own family history into evocative musical form.

Ancestral Numbers II, due out October 8 via Playscape Recordings, is the second volume of music reflecting on his ancestry, following the May 2024 release of Ancestral Numbers I. Both volumes feature a superb quintet distilled from Robinson’s larger Janus Ensemble, with trombonist Michael Dessen, pianist Joshua White, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ches Smith.

The inspiration for Ancestral Numbers was the final gift bestowed on Robinson by his maternal grandmother, Ruby Annette Kilbury, who passed away in 2022. Looking back through his lineage, Robinson discovered that he was the latest (and last) in a line of eldest children born when their mothers were just 17 years old. While hardships undoubtedly ensued from such young parenthood, he also realized that it offered the rare benefit of having known firsthand several generations of his forebears.

“My grandmother was 34 when I was born,” Robinson recalls. “Growing up it felt kind of odd to have a mom that was so young, just starting her adult life. But at this age I realize how special that was. My grandmother's passing was the instigator for turning my imaginative musical attention toward the idea of ancestry – to my ancestors in particular. The project isn’t really about interpreting the sounds of my ancestors. It's more about making music for them.”

That in itself is a complicated notion. Robinson’s music strays far from anything his extended family might be familiar with. He writes intricate, challenging compositions that draw inspiration from heady ideas – Greek and Roman mythology, geography, oceanography, the connections between memory and community. Fully aware that this cerebral approach may be daunting to the uninitiated, Robinson and his ensemble infuse these albums’ demanding architecture with heartfelt emotion, imbuing the forward- looking soundworld with a warm, familial affection and a captivating sense of narrative.

“I'm fascinated by the way that we sonify stories in the jazz tradition,” Robinson says. “To paraphrase Charlie Parker: if you don't live an experience, it won't come out of your horn. So it felt like a natural turn to take all of the storytelling approaches that I've been working on over the years and think about ancestry through that lens.”

Both volumes of Ancestral Numbers are rich with sonic portraits of Robinson’s ancestors and expressive pieces that unfold from the discoveries that the composer uncovered during the course of his research. “Ruby” is named for the grandmother who started him down this path, its blossoming three-note fanfare an echo of her final “I love you” to him. The bold “Enos” depicts his paternal great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Portugal to California, while “Malachi” imagines the journey of another maternal ancestor whose path led through the American south.

Movement over time – years, in some cases generations – is a crucial piece of most family histories, especially in the United States, where immigration is a vital if unendingly contentious part of our national identity. On Ancestral Numbers II, Robinson contends with these movements on pieces like “Arrival” and “The Return,” while “Deployment” honors his great-grandfather’s service in World War II. “Grayscale” muses on the black and white imagery that tints our imaginings of the past. Family lore expands to adopted home on “Sweet Tooth,” inspired not by Robinson’s own past but that of the Massachusetts village where he lives – namely, a group of 19th-century women whose pies earned renown for the otherwise sleepy community of Farley. Both volumes end with a different version of the title track, which uses that recurrent number, seventeen, as a launchpad.

Delving into the past can yield secrets and surprises, some pleasant or prestigious, others less so. Life viewed from this grander perspective can be, perhaps inevitably, as messy and contradictory as it is on the more intimate, everyday scale on which we live it. Robinson strove to capture that nuanced richness through his music for Ancestral Numbers, which is tailor-made for his ensemble and spurs the musicians to intensely spirited playing.

“When it comes to composing, I learned years ago that I get bored with sticking to the rules,” he explains. “My instinct is to live somewhere in between Logos and Pathos, which in the end feels like life. Human experience always seems to exist in this gray zone between the things you're supposed to do and the things that feel good. In the ancestral record, all these concepts swirl together in predictable and unpredictable ways. So this project tries to reflect my ancestor’s lives back at them in unpredictable ways. It's really a love note to my family.”

Jason Robinson

The music of American composer, saxophonist, flutist, and scholar Jason Robinson has been described as “rugged and scintillating" by The New York Times. Initially a devotee of post-1960s jazz and creative music, Robinson is a critically acclaimed, distinctive voice in a generation of creative musicians in equal dialogue with jazz, popular music, experimental music, and electronic music. His primary group is the Janus Ensemble, which ranges in size from quartet to 11-piece ensemble. The group's latest release, Harmonic Constituent (Playscape, 2020), was inspired by technical and impressionistic aspects of the oceanography, tidal dynamics, and geography along the Northern California coastline. Robinson has released 18 albums as leader or co-leader and performed with such artists as George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Myra Melford, Nicole Mitchell, Amiri Baraka, Toots and the Maytals, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Eugene Chadbourne, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Babatunde Lea and others.


  • Jason Robinson Quintet

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