In Laurie Carlos’ The Pork Chop Wars, recently brought to life at Flywheel Arts by Priscilla Page, Djola Branner and Shakeel Cullis, the playwright invokes a “praise song, swollen with gratitude.” The first Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert of the season, featuring Jason Robinson, tenor saxophone, David Goodrich, guitar, and Bob Weiner, drums, felt like a kind of praise song, with plenty of gratitude circulating throughout the room.
It was a time of beginnings: the kick-off of Season 7 of Jazz Shares, the first public performance by this trio, the first event in the Northampton Arts Trust Building’s new flexible performance space, the start of another academic year, Rosh Hashanah.
Robinson, now Chair of the Music Department at Amherst College, and Weiner, also a gifted educator and long the preeminent percussionist in the Valley, are serious about building a strong music community where they live. They are two of the forces behind the monthly Soundworks Gathering, which hosted the theatrical reading at Flywheel in Easthampton last Thursday. They give free lunch time concerts at the Amherst Survival Center, are regulars on the Green Street Trio scene, and organize Creative Music Gatherings, where groups of disparate musicians workshop ideas.
The community, in turn, came out to support Robinson, Weiner and former Pioneer Valley resident David Goodrich, who played two sets of interactive, improvised music. More than 120 of us crowded into the brand-new Hawley St. space on Saturday, September 8, to listen to melodies materialize and dissipate with the determinacy of a dream.
Themes from the Great American Songbook floated by, followed by folk tunes, compositions of Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk, and others. I had the sensation of watching clouds form and vanish; what was clearly a car or a dog, is now, moments later, a series of cotton puffs. Melody was king during Saturday’s concert, but the tensile strength of it, “the resistance of the material to breaking under tension,” varied.
Out of the band’s sound world, a song you recognized would emerge and linger, until one of the musicians applied enough tension to move things in a new direction. There was no applause between solos or songs. The music was one continuous stream of sound that ebbed and flowed, by turns beautiful and ominous.
The band is called DECADES, a reference to the fact its members were born in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Although the idea to form the trio was Robinson’s, Weiner was the project instigator, the one with playing experience with both bandmates. He was in the center, he acted as fulcrum, as scaffold. Playing a variety of shakers, hand drums and little instruments, as well as drum kit, he moved the proceedings “from planet to planet,” as Sun Ra might put it. As befits someone who has performed and recorded with Harry Belafonte, Jon Lucien and Andy Statman, Weiner was able to groove in multiple supple ways.
Robinson, who left his other axes at home, juxtaposed his gorgeous tone on tenor with rainbows of multi-phonics and slap-tongued belt slaps. His clarion announcement of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” sent shivers up spines. As Weiner manipulated the pulse, Robinson and Goodrich called and responded, stating melodies before painting over them.
I was honored to find out that when Robinson first travelled from California in 2008 to begin his work at Amherst College, I was the first person he contacted. Robinson has since presented his celebrated Janus Ensemble at my UMass Magic Triangle Jazz Series, wrote an essay celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Series, performed solo at our annual Jazz Shares summer gathering, and now serves on the Board of Directors of Jazz Shares. It’s the like-mindedness of people like Robinson and Weiner that makes my role in the music feel so worthwhile.
I was also interested to learn that before relocating to Austin, Texas five years ago, David Goodrich had attended multiple Magic Triangle concerts. He told me that watching Joe and Mat Manieri in 2004 was a peak listening experience, right up there with seeing Ali Farka Touré at Johnny D’s. It is always good to remember that the boxes we put artists in are our own, and rarely correspond to how musicians look at their world. Goodrich, who is known for his work with Chris Smither, Peter Mulvey and other folk and country singer-songwriters, had no trouble mixing it up with two master improvisers. At one point, he turned to his amp and interacted with it, coaxing feedback that he used to create a welcome wash of sound. Later, I was pleasantly disoriented when he picked up a one-string diddley bow to play a funky, blues inflected bass line.
Well, one concert down, seventeen to go. The next will be Thursday, September 27 at Bezanson Recital Hall, UMass, when we get to hear Angelica Sanchez, who we know can play the piano, compose and arrange for a nonet of some of the world’s best improvisers.
Jason Robinson, Bob Weiner and David Goodrich are integral members of an open-minded community of music lovers. The beat goes on.