Playing to Win: Jason Robinson Harmonic Constituent
The mere fact that a team has an all-star at every position does not insure success. Ask the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, the three major league baseball teams with the most wins this year. Like the rest of us, they are watching the 2021 World Series on television. The same goes for music. Having the biggest names does not always translate to making the most convincing music. But when the best jells, as they did at the Northampton Arts Trust on Friday, October 15, the results can be transcendent.
Saxophonist Jason Robinson, who is a dear friend and a Board member of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, led a quartet of serious musicians in an evening of his compositions. This Jazz Shares concert, delayed over a year because of COVID-19, celebrated the release of Harmonic Constituent (Playscape, 2020). The four musicians on the recording: Joshua White (piano), Drew Gress (bass), Ches Smith (drums, glockenspiel) and Robinson, assembled at 33 Hawley St. to wow 65 rapt listeners.
The 70-minute set included most of the material on Harmonic Constituent, an album filled with intricate compositions and improvised magic. Robinson made the right call to convene a rehearsal the day before, giving everyone’s muscle memories a chance to refresh, and letting Joshua White catch his breath after travelling from San Diego. The music was composed by Robinson on a trip to the northern coast of his home state of California, inspired by the power of the Pacific Ocean. “Harmonic constituent” refers to the complex interaction between the sun, earth and moon that influence tides at different locations.
The music was a spirit-filled amalgam of knotty, swinging, provocative and melodious sounds that crossed multiple stylistic boundaries, all played with off-the-charts virtuosity.
Joshua White excites me more than any other pianist I can think of (Matt Mitchell, notwithstanding.) His approach is fresh and seemingly without limit, not tied to any “school” or style. “Jug Handle”, Robinson’s dedication to his grandfather, ended with a beautiful solo summation by White. His touch on this gorgeous lullaby was so delicate we all got quiet with him. On “Mountain in Your Mind”, White romped with be-bop intensity. At other points he used parts of his hands to create waves of sound.
Ches Smith is another all-star with extremely catholic tastes. He has experience in rock-inspired projects like Mr. Bungle and Mark Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, has worked with revolutionaries like Terry Riley, John Zorn and Wadada Leo Smith, and has led recordings like The Bell (ECM, 2016), an exquisite chamber-like work featuring Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri, and Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic, 2021), a ground-breaking mix of jazz and Haitian drum traditions. His playing on Saturday precisely framed each of the compositions and gave shape to the solos and I was impressed he left dinner early to work on some of the tricky sections. His accents on glockenspiel made the music pop, much like a few drops of bitters add complexity to a drink.
Bassist Drew Gress has played on all of Robinson’s various-sized Janus Ensembles over the last decade. On more than one occasion I’ve heard Jason remark what a comfort it is to have Gress behind him. Despite seven releases as a leader, (I’m especially fond of Spin & Drift and The Irrational Numbers), Gress has made his living as a sideman with Steve Lehman, Angelica Sanchez, John Hollenbeck, John Abercrombie and dozens of others. The concert was performed without sound reinforcement and Gress’ bass provided all the heft we needed. His resonant tone and his understanding of the composer’s aims were right on. He served as spotter for the evening’s musical gymnastics.
As trying as the last 18 months have been, Robinson has accomplished a lot. Along with finishing a three-year stint as Chair of the Amherst College Music Department, he released three different recordings, all of them outstanding. In addition to Harmonic Constituent, 2020 also brought us The Urgency of Now, a largely improvised set featuring Bruno Råberg and Bob Weiner, and Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late: Duo Music of Ken Aldcroft, featuring guitarist Eric Hofbauer. He is one of the few scholars who is also a monster musician. (Our mutual friend Michael Dessen is another.) Robinson played tenor saxophone almost exclusively and masterfully explored the instrument’s sonic possibilities, from roar to whisper, shrieks to cat purrs. After repeated listens to Harmonic Constituent, I’ve grown to love the writing as much as the playing. Each composition is individually crafted to evoke a particular mood, while referencing some part of the massive jazz legacy Robinson clearly cherishes.
The best teams are guided by a manager who has a plan, is clearly in command and gives his charges room to be themselves and to influence the outcome. Jason Robinson has hit a home run, turning this collection of all-stars into a winning aggregation.