I've always had a hard time distinguishing West Coast jazz from East Coast jazz by ear. I mean. I know it's supposed to be a more smoothed-out cooler" variant of the vigorous, sometimes jarring jazz that comes out of NYC and I know that guys like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Bud Shank are closely associated with it, but are the differences really that significant?
Jason Robinson, for one, doesn't think so.
The saxophonist, flautist and composer blurs what little discernible differences that remain between the two coasts by hauling in some of today's finest players from both the left and right sides of the US and leading this star-studded lineup for The Two Faces Of Janus, out since October 5.
Strong personnel lineups for an album do a lot for my enthusiasm for listening to it for the first time, but even the least impressionable ears should be blown away a little by what the eyes read on the front of the CD: Liberty Ellman (guitar), Drew Gress (bass), George Schuller (drums), Marty Ehrlich (alto sax, bass clarinet) and Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax). This could have been a cutting contest and made for a decent album from the mere display of prowess from these cats, but Robinson had a higher purpose in mind.
Robinson came to prominence after absorbing the San Francisco jazz scene, a fertile one that freely incorporated funk, reggae, hip hop and other modern components into your father's jazz; maybe that's why Robinson never saw music as an East-West thing. The street knowledge he gained was amply supplemented in class: he holds a Phd. in music from UC-San Diego and serves as an associate professor of music at Massachusetts' Amherst College. He has been part of experimental ensembles like Trummerflora Collective and Cosmologic. There's more to his background than this, but that should give you an idea of the range and depth of ideas lodged in his brain, and this star-studded album is the right vehicle to pull out some of those ideas.
Though sticking doggedly with acoustic jazz throughout, Robinson tinkers with instrumental formats and melodic strategies to make each song stick out with a creative balancing act of arranged and improvised music. This is clear right from the first track Return To Pacasmayo," a performance that on one hand features some sophisticated charts for Robinson and Ehrlich that evoke Ellington and George Russell. On the other hand, the rest of the guys play a more modern form of jazz, and while the two horns joust freely, Ellman, Gress and Schuller shift the song into a sort of marching blues.
The title cut and Tides of Consciousness Fading" are distinguished by the addition of both Mahanthappa and Ehrlich (on bass clarinet) to create a three horn line. Amongst the scripted lines, however, the saxophones are often providing their own articulation of the underlying melody simultaneously, especially the latter track. It's a strangely effective clash of structure and chaos. Songs like The Elders," and Cerebrus Reigning" illuminate what a critical component Ellman is on Henry Threadgill's current band Zooid; he provides exactly the chords that follow down a crooked course that guides the soloists and gets the tune to its destination. Both Huaca de la Luna" and Huaca del Sol" are just Robinson on tenor and Ehrlich on alto, but there's something atypical about these duets. The two chase each other, the roles of chaser" and chased" freely moving back and forth between them. Not arranged, but sometimes the sax players appear to go down a predetermined path that they dance down on its margins.
Persephone's Scream" starts out as a duet, too, only this time between Robinson's tenor and Mahanthappa's alto. For two minutes two pair bob and weave around each other before they suddenly converge and locate the entry portal into the song. Robinson, the abrasive, angular one and Mahanthappa the fluid, calculating type, mesh together well like, actually, Robinson and Ehrlich. Gress' role is central not only in keeping the harmony nailed down to the floor but he gets solo time early on after the duet. From a pure performance standpoint, this selection is a high point.
In Roman mythology, the god of gateways and doors Janus has one face looking back to the past and another looking ahead toward the future. The Two Faces Of Janus likewise looks forward at the same time it remains firmly rooted in tradition. Lots of very bright, talented musicians attempt to do this, but only very few have the understanding, wherewithal and sense of history to do this in such an articulate way. Jason Robinson is one of those very few.