Myths and Music Resonate at UMass Magic Triangle Series

Feb 19, 2014

Saxophonist Jason Robinson.
Credit Scott Friedlander

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, The Magic Triangle Jazz Series at the University of Massachusetts resonates with myth, magic and improvisational prestidigitation at 8:30 pm on Thursday, February 20, as the acclaimed saxophonist/composer/scholar Jason Robinson and his Janus Ensemble explore three of his new works and adventurous pieces from his latest, celebrated recording, Tiresian Symmetry.

Robinson thrives on the razor's edge challenge of experimental music and the freedom to enter any and all genres.

Robinson, an assistant professor of music at Amherst College, leads his nine-piece ensemble -- all excellent exegetes of his suites inspired by the Greek myth of the blind soothsayer Tiresias -- as they perform at Bezanson Recital Hall on UMass’s Amherst campus. Besides marking the silver anniversary of the prestigious Magic Triangle Jazz Series, the concert initiates a five-city tour for Robinson’s Janus Ensemble, launching his crew of avant-garde Argonauts on their journey ranging from Montreal to Brooklyn’s Roulette Theater, a celebrated center for the experimental arts.

Robinson’s fellow travelers on this quick odyssey are a crew of close allies and cutting-edge warriors, including reed master Marty Ehrlich, who is himself a bona fide mythic figure in the annals of improvisational music. Also on board for the adventurous explorations are Oscar Noriega, reeds; Bill Lowe, tuba, bass trombone; Michael Dessen, trombone; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Devin Hoff, bass; and George Schuller and Ches Smith, drums.

Besides being a serious scholar with a passion for philosophy and a profound interest in cultural and popular music studies, Robinson thrives on the razor’s edge challenge of experimental music and the freedom to enter any and all genres, whether acoustic or electronic. As a composer/arranger, his diverse inspirations span everything from Duke Ellington (especially the ducal manner in which he tailors his pieces to fit the specific skills of his stylish bandmates) to Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill and beyond to wherever his liberated imagination and intellectual curiosity might lead.

While he has a Ph.D. in music from the University of California, San Diego, and had totally immersed himself in both philosophy and jazz studies (his favorite subjects ranging from Wittgenstein to Coltrane) as an undergrad at Sonoma State University, there’s nothing academic about his Olympian, genre-leaping credits. His thick curriculum vitae, aside from his degrees and college teaching gigs, includes tours with a dizzying variety of acts, ranging  from the San Francisco Mime Troupe to the jazz/reggae roots band, Groundation.

"I think of the listener as an active member of the musical moment."
Jason Robinson

Besides performing, recording and studying with such new music heavyweights as George Lewis and Anthony Davis, Robinson, a hard-swinging, versatile jazz intellectual, has played gritty reggae with Toots and the Maytals and rocking blues with Bonnie Raitt. Perhaps his ecumenical tastes can be traced back to his California boyhood where, thanks to his songwriting, rock guitar playing father, he grew up inspired and musically nurtured by the recorded sounds of rhythm and blues groovemeister Louis Jordan, the acrobatic alto feats of Charlie Parker and the explosive pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix.

Flash forward to Robinson in his early 30s and you see the compleat composer/multi-instrumentalist enjoying a watershed year in 2010 when he released three consecutive acclaimed CDs. His triumphant trifecta featured:  Cerulean Landscape, a harvest of expansive duets drenched in a rich palette of the cerulean hues of the blues with pianist Anthony Davis; Cerberus Reigning, an electroacoutic tour de force using saxophone, flute and computer programs on his laptop; and The Two Faces of Janus, featuring his all-star ensemble delving into his original works in a fine foreshadowing of his most recent release, Tiresian Symmetry.

Tiresias appears to Odysseus in this watercolor with tempera by Johann Heinrich Füssli.
Credit The Yorck Project / Creative Commons

A mythic Greek figure whose story has been recounted over the centuries, Tiresias was the blind soothsayer of Thebes who lived seven lives, spending time both as a man and as a woman. Robinson uses the myth’s numerology of seven lives and two genders as a kind of symmetry and recurring numerical motif in his Tiresian Symmetry suite in a variety of structural ways and musical devices, including shifting time signatures and instrumental combinations.       

A longtime resident of the Bay Area in San Francisco, Robinson began teaching at Amherst College in 2008. He and his wife, Stephanie, a composer and sound designer for theater, live in Amherst and love the Pioneer Valley. While the west coast transplants have many friends, colleagues, and deep ties in western Massachusetts, they will perhaps never adjust to New England’s winter with its sequences of snowstorms requiring much heavy shoveling.

Recently, Robinson spoke by phone to Jazz Corridor from his home in Amherst about everything from Greek and Roman mythology and his Janus-like view of history to what goes through the mind of the improviser creating in the moment.

Owen McNally: What are the Greek mythological references all about in your works: Tiresias, the soothsayer; Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gateway to the underworld; and Janus, the Roman god with two-faces looking in opposite directions?    

Jason Robinson.
Credit Jim White

Jason Robinson: I was drawn to Greek mythology for one main reason. I’ve often thought about improvisation as a way of telling one’s story. Jazz musicians often talk about improvisation that way.

I’ve been really intrigued by how stories are told in different traditions. One place to look for different narrative techniques is Greek and Roman mythology. That attracted my attention for a couple different reasons. One has to do with the symbolic numerology that occurs in some of the myths…the idea of using numerology and chronological perspective for inspiration.

The Two Faces of Janus, an album I released a few years ago on Cuneiform Records, is where the name of my band comes from, derived from the myth of Janus. Janus was the god of doorways who simultaneously looked towards the future and towards the past. People would have the image of Janus posted above their front doors in ancient Rome.

It was a way of signifying that we all come from the past, but who knows what’s going to be in the future. For me, improvisation is kind of like that.  When we make music, we’re always aware of what’s come before, both in philosophical and historical terms. The music I make couldn’t really exist if Charlie Parker didn’t exist.

Could you expand a little on how Tiresias, numerology and myths, fits in your creative process?

I look to these different ways of telling stories in myths as generating starting  points for building musical structures. For instance, my use of  the myth of Tiresias, who was a soothsayer, a sort of fortune teller who, according to ancient stories, lived seven different lives or seven different generations, and would come back in different forms, sometimes as a male and sometimes as a female.  I was really intrigued by this idea of two (genders) and seven (lives). So in the composition and orchestration for Tiresian Symmetry there are all these 'two' and 'seven' relationships that come out.    

I came to the Tiresias myth through the idea of Janus, the concept of future and past and present. Here’s Tiresias, this character in Greek mythology, who’s all about foretelling the future, giving either foreboding warnings about things that will happen or prophecies that are happier, about families and so on. That’s how I got to Tiresias.

How does this philosophy work when you’re actually in the act of improvising?         

Jason Robinson.
Credit Charles Quigg
"I've played a lot of different kinds of music, including the more cerebral. But to me it's very much about the body."
Jason Robinson

When we’re creating music in the moment, we’re thinking about what happened just a few moments ago in the music. And then moving toward the future, we make decisions in the present moment about what we’re going to play, how we’re going to build the stories that we’re creating in the music, and then we move forward into the future. Improvisation for me has all these kinds of temporal dimensions to it. It’s all about the past, the present and the future. 

While all that’s going on in your mind, what’s the connection with the listener?

It’s always a transaction. I think of the listener as an active member of the musical moment. And that way I kind of imagine musical collaborators and listeners all sort of being part of the same interaction that’s happening.  When I’m playing. I’m listening to  the bass player or  one of the other horn players, and  they’re listening to me kind of like a listener in the audience would listen. We (the improvising musicians) use conceptual and philosophical approaches to making sound and structuring sound. And then, ultimately, the meaning of it is in the ear of the listener.

It’s impossible for me personally to ever forget that. It’s always this really interesting balance, this give-and-take where the meaning of the music is being created.

Obviously, your music is quite cerebral, but how important then would you say is the element of feeling?

For me it’s fundamentally important. I’ve played a lot of different kinds of music, including the more cerebral. But to me it’s very much about the body. I still play a lot of music that’s meant for dancing, and is groove-oriented music that’s about the body. I’m always stopping and surveying what my compositional ideas are producing and asking myself, "Does it feel good? Does it feel good to the body?" That’s kind of a litmus test for me compositionally.

You use the Janus myth as way of representing the idea that an artist looks both to the past and to the future. How important to you as an innovator is the past, the uses of history and the value, if any, of such historic figures as, say, Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young?

Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young…that’s where I come from.

I’ll never forget in my early 20s, I was so obsessed with Lester Young that I started transcribing every single one of his solos that I listened to.  I said to myself, ‘I’m going to put out a book of transcriptions.’  I’d transcribed all those solos of his and had a book’s worth of transcriptions, and then realized that someone else had already done that book.

Tell me more about how a visionary like yourself views history.

The way in which we look backwards into the past changes for us too on a day-to-day basis. I’ve gone through a number of phases, for example, over time. The first thing that really caught my ear when I was a kid was Louis Jordan.  My father was a rock musician and for one reason or another he was obsessed with Louis Jordan. So I grew up listening to Louis Jordan.    

I started out on alto saxophone, and back then was totally smitten with Charlie Parker. I couldn’t believe that he was playing alto sax when I heard those incredible sounds coming out of the speakers. It just didn’t compute with the horn that I had in my hands. And then Coltrane came along with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and so many others too. It all changes over time.

I’d say that more recently I’ve been re-investigating Coltrane in the mid and late ‘50s. At the same time, I’ve been obsessed for a few years with Henry Threadgill’s music from the ‘90s and his Very Very Circus Band. So I jump around, but it all sticks with me.

What are your goals as an artist, and what compels you to do what you do?

Ultimately, for me, making music -- or making any kind of art, whether it’s writing or doing the kind of academic scholarship that I do -- is really all about connecting with people. It’s about seeking ways to have shared experiences that are about discovery, creating community, feeling like you're part of a community, and really connecting with one another. This is why I’m so drawn to improvisation and playing with people who have backgrounds in improvisation. //

Jason Robinson’s Janus Ensemble performs at 8:30 pm on Thursday, February 20, at the University of Massachusetts’ Bezanson Recital Hall on the Amherst campus. Tickets: $12.00 general public; $7.00 students, available at the UMass Fine Arts Center box office, (800) 999-UMAS, fineartscenter.com/magictriangle. Next up in the series: Joe Lovano/Mark Helias/Tom Giampietro Trio on March 13 and the Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble on April 17. The series is produced by WMUA-FM and the Fine Arts Center.

Rudy Royston, left, and Ben Allison.
Credit Michele Terpolilli / Ben Allison

Opening Day for Rites of Spring

Firehouse 12, New Haven’s big league home grounds for hardball progressive music, opens its ninth annual spring Jazz Series on March 21 with bassist/composer and Elm City native Ben Allison as the leadoff batter for the strong new season of 13 consecutive Friday night concerts running through June 13.

The lineups feature such other heavy hitters as Connecticut’s gifted pianist/composer Noah Baerman, the legendary drummer Barry Altschul, the phenomenal young bassist Linda Oh, and the prolifically productive, radically daring, Tokyo-born pianist/composer Satoko Fujii.

Ambitious and as varied as ever, the schedule features debut performances at Firehouse 12 by pianist Kevin Hays and saxophonist Russ Nolan, while welcoming back such series regulars as Baerman, cornetist/composer and Connecticut favorite Taylor Ho Bynum and the ascending, young guitarist Mary Halvorson, among other top players.

Allison, who’s riding high on his new, widely acclaimed and sci-fi and cinematically inspired CD, The Stars Look Very Different Today, leads his trio in a repertoire focusing on the music of Jim Hall, Jimmy Giuffre and more, with a little bit of help from his friends guitarist Steve Cardenas and saxophonist Ted Nash.  Whether collaborating with anybody from oudist Ara Dinkjian or  saxophonist Joe Lovano to tap dancers Jimmy Slide and Gregory Hines or the then US Poet Laureate  Robert Pinsky, Allison always seems right at home, perpetually devising something mind-bendingly new yet somehow accessible.

Baerman comes loaded for bear for his encore at Firehouse 12 on May 9 with his elite unit, The Jazz Samaritan Alliance, which features two heavy hitting saxophonists with deep Hartford roots, Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen. Other allies in the Alliance include vibist Chris Dingman and drummer Jonathan Blake. The Alliance is a collective of established composer/educator/performers using their collaboration as a means of creating and presenting socially conscious original jazz.

Altschul, the percussionist of choice for many greats in both modern jazz and avant-garde genres, makes his Firehouse 12 debut May 23 with a power-packed trio featuring alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Joe Fonda.

Oh, who was born in Malaysia and raised in Western Australia, seized attention as a scintillating side-person for such luminaries as Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano. Now a recording artist in her own right, she brings her Sun Pictures band—the title of her third release—to Firehouse 12 on June 6 as the series’ penultimate offering. Her bandmates are saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Matt Stevens and drummer Rudy Royston.

For the season finale on June 13, Satoko Fujii leads her Full Trio + 1, which features her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, drummer Takashi Itani and bassist Todd Nicholson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Ben Allison Trio, March 21; Kevin Hays New Day Trio, March 28; Kneebody, April 4; Thumbscrew, April 11; Bad Touch, April 18; Rudy Royston 303, April 25; and Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet (including Mary Halvorson), May 2.

Also, Noah Baerman and The Jazz Samaritan Alliance, May 9; Russ Nolan Quartet featuring Manuel Valera, May 16; Barry Altschul and the 3dom Factor, May 23; For Living Lovers: Brandon Ross and Stomu Takeishi, May 30; Linda Oh and Sun Pictures, June 6; and Satoko Fujii Trio + 1, June 13.

Each concert features sets at 8:30 and 10 p.m. Tickets for all events are $18 for the first set and $12 for the second set and can be purchased online at firehouse12.com, by phone at (203) 785-0468, or in person at the box office beginning at 7:00 pm the night of the show. A limited amount of season passes good for admission to both sets of every concert are also available for $200. For careful listeners out to savor every single note and nuance, Firehouse 12 is the Platonic sonic ideal since performances are presented in the intimate setting of the venue’s acoustically engineered recording studio with a seating capacity of 75 for like-minded devotees of the cutting-edge art.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Can Spring Be Far Behind?

Less than two weeks before the vernal equinox, the globetrotting bassist Joe Fonda presents the ninth annual Jazz Composers and Improvisers Festival on March 8 at Middletown’s Buttonwood Tree, a one-night bash featuring saxophonists Claire Daly and Charlie Kohlhase, and guitarist Mike Musillami.

Claire Daly.
Credit Clare Daly

Daly, a noted baritone saxophonist who has taught at Jazz at Lincoln Center and in Connecticut at the Litchfield Jazz Camp, opens the festival at 7:30 pm, performing in a duo format with her longtime collaborator pianist Jole Forrester.

Kohlhase, a longtime sparkplug on Boston’s dynamo jazz scene, leads his Explorers Trio at 8:30 pm. His fellow explorers are guitarist Eric Hofbauer and drummer Curt Newton.

As the festival’s anchorman, the noted guitarist/composer Michael Musillami hits at 9:30 pm, leading his trio, which features two longtime collaborators and close friends, drummer George Schuller and Fonda, the festival presenter on bass. This is Musillami’s flagship trio, the real deal, a trinity of interaction and individuality all blended into a transcendent three-in-one-mix.

Born and raised in California, Musillami moved permanently to the East Coast in the early 1980s, working initially in organ trios led by such groovemeisters as Richard “Groove” Holmes and Bobby Buster. Paying his dues, he was a sideman for such stalwarts as Junior Cook, Dewey Redman (father of Joshua) and Curtis Fuller. Around that time, he made a pivotal Connecticut connection when he hooked up with an ambitious, creative bunch of Young Turks at the Hillside Club in Waterbury, including such future luminaries in improvised music as bassist Mario Pavone and saxophonist Thomas Chapin, among others.  

Over the years, Musillami has led and co-led a variety of ensembles, released 15 CDs as a leader and toured throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Besides performing, composing and touring, he is also the founder of the noted indie label, Playscape Recordings, which has a diverse catalog of 40 releases. In another Connecticut link, in addition to the historically important Hillside revolutionaries, he has also been the longtime director of jazz studies at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville.

Tickets to the Fonda fest: $18.00 in advance; $20.00 at the door. Information: buttonwoodtree.org and (860) 347-4957. The Buttonwood is at 605 Main Street in Middletown.

Holiday for Strings

Mike Asetta, a classically trained jazz bassist, and the violinist and mandolinist Jason Anick lead their combos this weekend as strings rule at The Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme.

Asetta, a versatile string master who has performed with ensembles ranging from the Yale Philharmonia to the latter day Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, performs at 8:30 pm on Friday, February 21, with his quintet, which features the rising, young trumpeter Cindy Bradley. Asetta’s E-ZPass crisscrossing between the worlds of classical and jazz has been perhaps facilitated by the fact that he has studied with two world-famous double bass masters, classical with Gary Karr and jazz with Michael Moore. Tickets: $25.00.

Anick, who tours internationally with the virtuoso Nashville guitarist John Jorgenson, plays at 8:30 pm on Saturday, February 22, with his quintet, and will be celebrating the release his album, Tipping Point. Admission: $20.00. Information: sidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886. Doors open at 7:30 pm.

The Matt and Atla Show

Pianist Matt DeChamplain and vocalist Atla DeChamplain, one of Connecticut’s premier husband and wife jazz power couples, perform at 7:00 pm on Thursday, February 20, at the Windsor Art Center, 40 Mechanic Street in Windsor. Quality and variety abound as the musically hip couple digs into everything from American Songbook material, bebop, contemporary jazz and original pieces -- just about anything that’s smart, tuneful and swings. Tickets: $10.00. Information: (860) 688-2528.

Atla, sans Matt, shows up again at 7:30 ppm on Friday, February 21, singing with the BLH Trio in the Music @ Japanalia Series at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street in Hartford. BLH translates into Ben Bilello on drums, Laurence Hobgood, the longtime accompanist for super singer Kurt Elling, on piano, and Henry Lugo on bass. Bilello has recorded with a variety of jazz greats ranging from Branford Marsalis to Anthony Braxton. Tickets: $48.00 stage-side table seating; $28.00 general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.

Steve’s Straight-Shooting Sidekicks

Steve Davis, a top gun trombonist and high-caliber music professor from West Hartford, rounds up yet another fine posse of straight-shooting jazz marksmen  at 8:00 pm on Monday, February 24, for the Jazz Mondays series at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street in Hartford. Davis’s resourceful deputies are tenor saxophonist Jovan Alexandre, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, pianist Taber Gable, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Jonathan Barber. Admission: free. Information: charteroakcenter.org.

What’s In a Name?

As a wizard jazz avant-garde, blues and rock guitarist and singer/songwriter, Michael Gregory Jackson is a man of so many parts who crosses so many genres so easily that he might well wonder what’s in a name, and whether a genre by any other name would sound as sweet.

The New Haven native who is the headliner for the Hartford Public Library’s free Baby Grand Jazz Series at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 23, has been associated with such cutting-edge jazz icons as Oliver Lake, Wadada Leo Smith (an important early mentor longtime friend and supporter since early New Haven days), David Murray and Anthony Davis, and a host of other improvised music demi-gods. 

Jackson’s iconoclastic, virtuosic playing, which made a big splash on New York’s feverishly fertile loft scene of a couple decades ago transformed him into an  influential figure of devotion even for  the following generations of cutting-edge guitarists dreaming of someday ascending into the plugged-in pantheon. But over the years, Jackson’s diverse path led in a variety of other directions, including even more commercial ones with a pop rather than an avant-garde aesthetic. In the 1980s, Michael dropped the Jackson surname to avoid any confusion with the King of Pop, choosing to record under the name Michael Gregory. In more recent times his varied odyssey has taken him back full circle to that then brave, new world of avant-garde guitar explorations, a direction accentuated by ambitious touring
and a new release in 2013, Liberty (Embla Music), which features him and the Art Ensemble Syd, a progressive band  from Denmark.

A protean artistic figure (so protean that even his name changed, then changed back again), he’s had vital links with the rock, cabaret and theater world, evidently graced with a rare kind of artistic sensibility that opens  many doors of opportunity for individual expression in the art world.

Among his varied credits, for example, the now 60-year-old artist has worked with the noted playwright/poet Ntozake Shange and the playwright/poet and multi-media performance artist, Jessica Hagedorn. As part the litany of luminaries he has performed and/or recorded with during his globe-trotting, genre-leaping career are Carlos Santana and Nona Hendryx, among many others.

The once-reigning guitar god, who has passed through a dramatic unfolding of creative personas, appears in his latest reincarnation as he performs for the jazz congregation gathered for the weekly Sunday matinee in the atrium at the downtown library, 500 Main Street. Information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6295.

Crouch’s Classy Choruses on Bird

Stanley Crouch.
Credit kingfeatures.com

Stanley Crouch, the fiercely independent often combative cultural critic, jazz writer novelist, poet and columnist for The New York Daily News, will read selections from his latest book, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, at 7:00 pm on February 26 in the Hubbard Room at Russell Library, 123 Broad Street in Middletown. 

Marking the first volume of a projected full biography, the book covers the formative first 21 years of the tumultuous life of the future jazz genius universally known as Bird. Crouch’s candid portrait of the artist as a young man, shows how the wild, politically corrupt, morally freewheeling. jazz-besotted, vice capital of Kansas City shaped Bird’s life, initially inspired his genius and whetted his self-destructive  appetite for drugs  that eventually killed him at only 34 in 1955.

To the delight of the tabloids, Bird died in a suite at the Stanhope Hotel owned by the flamboyant Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild heiress, celebrated for her unstinting support of jazz musicians, including such brilliant cultural renegades and outsiders as Bird and Thelonious Monk. Bird’s body was so ravaged by years of heroin abuse and dissipation that the doctor who examined his body thought he was 53 years old.

Using his omniscient novelistic eye and razor-sharp, sometimes exuberantly poetic prose, Crouch guides us through this fascinating, multi-faceted, unsaintly character’s rocky youth right up to the edge of greatness and the not so pretty primrose path leading to Bird’s apotheosis as an American icon and one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians.

As with everything he writes, whether he’s berating rap or mocking the jazz avant-garde, Crouch minces no words as a whirlwind writer and pulls no punches as a pugnacious debater. While Bird, as an artist may be a nonpareil, godlike creator for Crouch, as he has been for generations of musicians, artists, Beat writers and rebels of all kinds, this is no hagiography. All Bird’s magical, creative arts and ugly, personal warts are scrutinized with candid, meticulous detail.

A close ally of Wynton Marsalis and a staunch Defender of the Faith of mainstream jazz values, Crouch has been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Award for his essay collections, Notes of a Hanging Judge and The All-American Skin Game. Other books include Always in Pursuit, The Artificial White Man and an acclaimed novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, better known as the genius grant, he’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Crouch’s reading selections, it is announced, will focus on the place of black Americans in American history and culture. But Crouch is an improviser and could easily take a verbal flight soaring like a Bird solo.

With Crouch at the podium, the one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the performance will not be boring. The reading is free and open to the public. Information: (860) 347-2528.    

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