The competing tubas heard on the opening seconds of Jason Robinson’s new big project Tiresian Symmetry made me instinctively utter three words: Very Very Circus. Robinson turns to Henry Threadgill – particularly his 90s Very Very Circus ensemble — and his unique approach to composition for a new dynamic for what’s becoming a series of forward thinking albums using ancient Greek mythological figures as themes. This time based on the blind prophet Tiresias, who lived as both a man and a woman, and like Tiresias, Robinson’s music oscillates between feminine and masculine features.
When saxophonist Robinson reconvened for his latest project, like the music, he made some tweaks to the personnel lineup while stopping short of a major overhaul. Liberty Ellman (guitar), Drew Gress (bass), Marty Ehrlich (alto sax, bass clarinet, c flute) and George Schuller (drums) were retained from 2010′s The Two Faces Of Janus. JD Parran (alto clarinet, contra bass clarinet, c flute) replaced Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto sax, and Ches Smith added a second drummer as well as glockenspiel. And then there are those two tubas, supplied by Marcus Rojas and Bill Lowe (who also plays the bass trombone).
Ellman, Lowe, Rojas and Parran are all veterans of Threadgill’s bands and Robinson leverages their experiences in grafting a little Threadgill into his own unique presentation. It’s found not only on the dueling tubas that kick start the lead-off “Stratum 3″ but also in the shifty marching drums and the improvising done around composed “interval blocks” on “Saros.”
Robinson also plays up the Tiresian dichotomy, through elegance and wooliness, composed and improvised, dense and lean. It’s first heard in the old-school tenor sax played on “Stratum 3″ as Gress and the drummers devise a volatile rumble, and also the highly structured groove of “Tiresian Symmetry” that breaks down into an extended improv section led by Gress’ bass. Then there’s “Corduroy,” where the combined horns go down one harmonic path and Gress, another. In this elaborate song construction, rhythm and melody go down same staggered path. Ellman performs his own Jeckl-Hyde act when he plays abstract, jazz single notes over drums ‘n’ bass on “Radiate,” morphing into a fuzz-toned maniac as the tempo gets even quicker.
The larger band is often broken up into several smaller ones at selected intervals. Solo, a capella performances, such as the ornery bass clarinet one that ushers in “Saros” and Robinson’s own searing, revelatory solo performance “Elbow Grease (Introduction)” help to strike the balance between individual and ensemble performance. Robinson also likes to pair off musicians into on-on-one encounters: the tuba/drums improvised section in the middle “Stratum 3″ comes to mind, as does Robinson’s jousting with Gress on “Cosmolographie,” where the two end up locking together note-for-note even after the rest of the band enters the song.
Jason Robinson, who set up many interesting subplots for The Two Faces of Janus, adds even more wrinkles to Tiresian Symmetry. He’s following in the footsteps of the great Henry Threadgill, and at the rate he’s going, it might not be long before he catches up.
(Feature photo: Scott Friedlander)