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CD Feature/ Jason Robinson: "Fingerprints"; Initial Conditions: "s/t"; Rick Helzer & John Stowell: "Friendship and Remembrance"

img  Tobias

It is celebration time for Circumvention Music. The brainchild of San Francisco-born Saxophonist Jason Robinson, who has adopted San Diego as his new home, is enjoying its tenth anniversary. Over the past decade, Robinson has not only used the label as a platform for his own music, but established it as an outlet for some of the more adventurous music in the fields of Jazz, Improv, Contemporary Composition and experimental Electronics. Never catering for the bull’s eye of these genres, instead aiming at a hard-to-define zone outside of medial radars and most listener’s expectations, Circumvention has carved out an edgey, yet never avantgardistic niche for itself.

The breadth of this vision is documented by a swathe of new releases, showcasing the diversity and electrifying potential this small artist community with international ambitions stands for. Jason Robinson kicks things off with his third effort “as a leader” (therefore discounting his widely respected collaborations and work with groups like the Cross Border Trio). Based around a core Quartet of Kamau Kenyatta (Piano), Rob Thorsen (Bass) and long-time companion Nathan Hubbard (Drums), the line-up is complemented by additional soloists and a small-scale orchestra of friends and respected colleagues, turning this into a sort of “Circumvention and Friends”.

The liner notes already vaguely hint at the direction “Fingerprints” is going to take: “I’ve always been fascinated by border regions, by the in-between spots, the blurry zones between distinct identities, styles and cultures”, Robinson writes, “Although American culture often seems like its primary currency is authenticity, you’ll find none here.” Which may come as a surprise if you listen to this album inattentively, spinning it in the background while dedicating your attention to something else. Robinson, after all, is not doing away with traditions alltogether, his original compositions still working along the lines of themes and improvisations. 

What indeed turns his music into a mesmerising cocktail of his eclectic influences is the way of piecing disparate elements together into coherent combinations, into astounding amalgams of fulminant flexibility. The intros to his 10-15 minute long pieces are tweaked into extended sections, pre-movements of minor-scale Jazz-symphonies characterised by swift mood swings, expeditious shifts in tempo and sudden breaks in texture. The rhythm section develops a sort of “Neu!”-ean robo-groove, while Kenyatta displays a romantic proximity to the work of Claude Debussy: On “Serendipity”, he supports his glistening, icycle-like right hand drips with billowing clouds of left-hand chords, providing for flowering spaces his tones can melt into.

Everything comes togetherr in the album’s pivotal piece, “Silence becomes a Roar”, on which Robinson and his crew are joined by a Wood Wind section under the auspices of Scott Walton. Opening with airy harmonies, Anthony Davis’ initially dreamy semblances turn into atonal Piano poundings, ripping a hole of silence into the music’s fabric. For a second, everything remains suspended, continuation in doubt. Carefully, Thorsen jumps in with a cool and lasciviously plucked bass motive. Davis returns with sensous chords, Hubbard follows suite and within seconds, the track is underway on an epic, orchestrally tinged trip of indelible intensity.

Robinson is the charismatic and spiritual leader of the pack, but by no means an egomaniacally obsessed focal point. His sound is authorative and luminous, his tone shining and shimmering, his lines fluent and analytical – and yet, there is always enough space for long solo passages by others, such as for Michael Dessen and his regal Trombone performances. Ignoring egocentrism, “Fingerprints” only gains in strength, presenting itself as a highly self-confident album. Spanning inspired improvisation and concentrated composition, it has every damn reason to do so.

After the rich tapestry of “Fingerprints”, the eponymous debut album by David Borgo’s new trio “Initial Conditions” sounds skeletised and raw – its publication possibly representing something of a personal satisfaction for Robinson, whose previous releases showed an approach adjacent to this kind of outwardly boppy emmanations. Consisting of Borgo on Saxes and Flutes, Gunnar Biggs on Bass and Duncan Moore on Drums, the reduced line-up is aimed at a “delicate balance between turbulence and coherence, between complexity, responsiveness and surprise”, offering a high degree of personal input, while forcing each member to listen to the slightest breath of his colleagues.

What is important to note is that even though everyone involved here is fully aware of these restrictions, the music is never once the result of a subtractive logic. You’d expect the combo to come up with all kinds of ingenious and inventive tricks to compensate for the loss of harmonic cohesion. As Initial Conditions prove, however,  this is neither necessary nor desirable. Their performance is not a reflection on form, but a full-on, frontal assault making use of everything they have and establishing a charismatic sound virtually on the fly (even though one can assume it to be the result of a lot of behind-the-scene debate and discussion as well). After you’ve listened to these seven original compositions and three guets contributions, the question remaining is not how they manage to draw so much from so little, but why others need so much more to come up with so much less.

Of course, the diversity of their material helps. Ranging from contageously whistleable tunes to complex rhythmic patterns and including experiments in rhythmless soundscapes revealing a penchant for soundtracks, “Initial Conditions” is a wild ride, whose contours are always clearly delineated, avoiding the oblique and blurry. Even though a track like “Carla’s Pause”, with its confounding stop-and-go motion and dynamic undulations at the quiet end of the sonic spectrum, stretches to seven minutes, most of these hypnotic pieces could go on forever, but never do. There is an unspoken agreement to focus on what is essential, disregarding the slightest distraction. Never feeling like a retrained effort, however, the album sucks you with greedy claws in and spits you out a different person.

Two of the tracks on “Initial Conditions”, including aforementioned “Carla’s Pause” were written by San Diego Pianist Rick Heltzer. In conjunction with Guitarist John Stowell, who sports an almost fourty year long career as a soloist and sidekick, he now presents a disc of duo pieces recorded at and thanks to the support of the Ikezi Music Foundation. While Borgo, Biggs and Moore did away with the idea of a chording instrument altogether, Helzer and Stowell are sporting two at the same time, while simultaneously displaying their talents for spanning bright melodic arches in their improvisations.

The duo is not only telepathically linked in terms of mutual understanding, their instruments also have a tendency of blending into a single, sounding organ. This lends “Friendship and Remembrance” a coherent and harmonious sound, which reduces chances of immediate emotional immersion and analytical penetration, but offers greater rewards on a longer time scale. Helzer’s chord progressions are long and complex, yet flow with a nocturnal grace, every new chord a logical progression from the previous one, while the next remains anyone’s guess. At first refusing to reveal their full beauty, their tonal architecture spikes itself into your brain, haunting your thoughts for hours after you’ve heard them.

Even though the first impression of the record is one of comfort and familiarity, the interaction between the performers is anything but formulaic. Rather, improvisations are marked by an experimental zest and a veritable spirit of discovery: Sometimes, all that is left of the supporting harmonic foundation are hints and faint fingerprints, the theme being dissected into notions of rhythm and intuitive memories. As a spectator, you will get most out of this trip if you let go of the idea that you need to be able to intelectually comprehend everything here and instead surrender to the hazy sensuality of this deeply romantic musical encounter.

This combination of accessibility and ambitiousness is common not just to these three CDs, but to Circumvention Music’s roster in general – a recognisable and recommendable feature. After ten years of exploration, Jason Robinson has every reason to be proud of what he has achieved. On the other hand, his party is not just restricted to his gang of friends and conspirators. Just as much as ten years of Circumvention are a reason for the label to celebrate, they are a cause to rejoice for expeditious Jazz fans worldwide.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Circumvention Music
Homepage: Jason Robinson
Homepage: David Borgo
Homepage: John Stowell

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