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A Slam Dunk by Anthony Davis, Assist to Jason Robinson

Throughout my career organizing concerts, I have been blessed to be able present musicians whose work I admire. Sometimes they are people with whom I have a relationship; other times they are folks I am anxious to meet. But it is rare for me to produce a concert featuring a friend and a hero.


That opportunity came on Sunday, November 13 when the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Solos & Duos Series hosted the Anthony Davis/Jason Robinson Duo at Bezanson Recital Hall.


When he first moved to the Pioneer Valley eight years ago to begin his teaching career at Amherst College, saxophonist Jason Robinson looked me up. Our mutual friend, trombonist Michael Dessen, had recommended we connect. Connect we did. Over the years, Jason has performed at my Magic Triangle Jazz Series with his nine-piece Janus Ensemble, performed solo at a Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares Annual Meeting, engaged his students with visiting artists for workshops, and helped save the Magic Triangle Series (at least for this year) by hosting a concert at Amherst College. We have shared many meals and conversations. He is not only a friend, but an ally.


Anthony Davis, who mentored Robinson in graduate school at University of California, San Diego, is someone whose music has had a major impact on my development as a listener. As I began to dig deep into jazz, I luckily stumbled across Davis’ early records like Song For the Old World (India Navigation, 1978), Of Blues and Dreams (Sackville, 1978), Hidden Voices (India Navigation, 1979) and Epistēmē (Grammavision, 1981.) With little experience and no context, I wrestled with these sounds, so different than the Ellington and Mingus I was digesting at the time. When the music hit me, when its secrets unlocked, I was a changed listener.


Sunday’s 70-minute recital was sublime, filled with gorgeous and varied tone, sturdy compositional structure, ample space for virtuosity and real musical conversation. Building on a rapport that began in San Diego and blossomed on their 2010 Clean Feed recording, Cerulean Landscape, Davis and Robinson each contributed tunes and shared the spotlight.


Robinson began on curved soprano, unfurling round, mellifluous tones not usually associated with the instrument. His tone on alto flute, which he used on “Translucence”, was also robust and full-bodied. During the rest of the evening, Robinson played tenor saxophone, exploring multiple registers, extended techniques and a variety of moods. His breath control, his note articulation, his ideas, the perfect way his split notes split, were commanding yet unforced.

Over the years, Anthony Davis has retained the influence of two of his touchstones: Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. I heard references to those masters in Davis’ rich chord voicings, the question mark at the end of a phrase, his elegant touch and blues feeling. These elements, audible from the beginning of his career, make Davis’ sound his own. One of the pieces the duo covered was the pianist’s “Graef”, which appears on Of Blues and Dreams. The rubato introduction left me wondering if it was the same composition I had spent so much time with. Then the simple, insistent bass line emerged, co-mingled with the probing, inquisitive melody I remembered.


I was surprised how few of my music-literate friends knew about Anthony Davis. It’s true he has devoted much of his time to composing and academia. He has written eight operas, including X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (Grammavision, 1992). His most recent, FIVE, chronicles the witch hunt known as the Central Park Five, and includes an appearance by our hate-mongering president-to-be. But other than occasional appearances with Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, Davis has hardly appeared on a jazz record in decades. Still, he is an important figure in modern music, and in my bubbled world, someone everyone should know. I’m glad my neighbors got a chance to hear a master perform.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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