If some artists are hedgehogs who know one big thing while others are foxes who know many little things, saxophonist Jason Robinson runs with the vixens.
A capaciously creative improviser engaged in a wide array of projects, Robinson recently released three radically different CDs that each reveal intricately detailed, often enthralling musical worlds. On “The Two Faces of Janus” (Cuneiform) he matches wits with a superlative rough-and-tumble New York ensemble that includes reed expert Marty Ehrlich and alto sax star Rudresh Mahanthappa.
“Cerulean Landscape” (Clean Feed) documents his expansive duo with longtime collaborator Anthony Davis, the pianist-composer better known these days for his ambitious operas than as a trailblazing jazz innovator. And on his solo session “Cerberus Reigning” (Accretions), named after the three-headed dog of Greek mythology who guards the gates of Hades, Robinson offers the second installment in a trilogy exploring sweeping electro-acoustic soundscapes on saxophones, flute and laptop.
“I feel uncomfortable with singularity,” says Robinson, 35, who divides his time equally between San Diego and western Massachusetts, where he’s an assistant professor of music at Amherst College. “The musicians who turn me on the most are artists who have many sides. There’s always a certain pressure to market yourself as having one kind of focus, but most artists are plural people. I’m the same way.”
For his concert at Eagle Rock’s Center for the Arts Sunday Evening Music Series, Robinson performs with another ensemble, the cooperative quartet Cosmologic, with trombonist Michael Dessen, bassist Scott Walton and Skelton Key Orchestra percussionist Nathan Hubbard (the free improv trio of guitarist Jim McAuley, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Pask, and bassist Walton will open the show).
Cosmologic came together a decade ago at UC San Diego, where Robinson et al were graduate students in the music program. While initially devoted to exploring the rambunctious compositions of Ornette Coleman, the group quickly morphed into a composer’s workshop, a role it’s continued to play over the course of four albums.
“There’s one thread that’s still very much Ornette, with open but blues-based kind of improvisation, but over the years all these other compositional ideas have emerged,” Robinson says. “I tend to be a little more hard-bop, post-bop or free-bop oriented, but we each have our own blueprint, a language we’ve been exploring. We seem to keep writing harder and harder music, raising the ante for ourselves, with the goal of sounding as natural as possible, sustaining a balance of cool and calm in the midst of intensity.”
Robinson is the rare case of a musician with deep creative ties to improvisers in just about every corner of California. Weaned on psychedelic rock by his father, veteran guitarist and songwriter Amos Robinson, he gravitated to the music of R&B pioneer Louis Jordan, Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker as an aspiring musician and jumped into Sacramento jazz scene as a teenager. After a year at USC, he transferred to Sonoma State, studying philosophy and jazz with the late bassist and composer Mel Graves.
Always looking to extend jazz practices, he co-founded the hip-hop jazz combo Cannonball and introduced saxophone to the roots reggae band Groundation. Already well established on the Bay Area jazz scene, Robinson experienced an epiphany when fellow saxophonist Marco Eneidi introduced him the roiling music of avant-garde piano patriarch Cecil Taylor. Looking to develop improvisational and compositional ideas beyond straight-ahead jazz, he was drawn UC San Diego by such heavyweight faculty members as Anthony Davis and trombonist-composer George Lewis.
“He came to UCSD as a player in the Wayne Shorter mode, very good at playing within harmonic structures,” says Davis, who’s working on an opera about the Cuban revolution with Cuban drum master Dafnis Prieto.
“He wrote these nice tunes, and we started working with more open situations, ‘going outside.’ He’s incredibly industrious. Even then Jason had these different groups, several of which developed out of my improvisation class. I think that’s the way Cosmologic with Michael Dessen started. It was a very strong group of students.”
San Diego provided fertile ground for Robinson on and off campus. His connection with Groundation opened the door to recording collaborations with reggae giants such as Don Carlos, Ras Michael, Marcia Higgs, Eek-a-Mouse, and Toots and the Maytals (who featured him on the Grammy-nominated 2007 Fantasy album “Light Your Light”).
A founding member of Trummerflora, an influential San Diego musician collective, Robinson seeks to bring experimental music to audiences largely cut off from vital creative traditions by the homogenizing force of the music industry.
In San Diego, that has often meant looking south. He’s toured across Mexico as part of the collaborative transnational Cross Border Trio with bassist Rob Thorsen and drummer Paquito Villa, and he joined the Spanish-English bilingual Latin reggae band Elijah Emanuel and the Revelations.
What unites his far-flung endeavors is his expressive eloquence on the saxophone. Whatever context he’s performing in, Robinson is a ruthless self-editor who distills the essential idea at hand. But he’s at his most lyrical in the company of Davis, a tremendously resourceful pianist too little heard since his seminal 1970s recordings with violinist Leroy Jenkins, flutist James Newton and cellist Abdul Wadud.
“We bring together our interests in different modes of improvising, in Ellington and Mingus, and composing singable melodies,” Robinson says. “He has this intense orchestral sense of accompaniment. Anything is possible. One moment he might reference post-bop, and the next Debussy or Ravel or Stravinsky.”