Buddy Systems
Meniscus Records MNSCS 003

For an artist, putting together a compilation of selected duos and trios over a four- year period can sometimes result in sins of inclusion rather than omission. This 74 minute souvenir of Bay Area percussionist Gino Robair's partnership with 10 local and international improvisers comes awfully close to that weakness a couple of times, but manages to finally negate those flimsy spots with superior execution.

Robair, a long time member of the Splatter Trio, with a hefty background in improv, electronic music and straight composition has amassed so many playing buddies that he apologizes in the booklet for not including more of them here. He made the right choices to maintain the proper variety, though. Additionally, by playing not only what he terms meta-percussion, but also theremin, he can amplify the proceedings past any lesser ideas from his guest(s).

Most of the time, the most powerful work here comes when the percussionist is challenged by equally forceful personalities. For instance, when he joins Bay Area clarinetist Dan Plonsey or British tenor sax explorer John Butcher — plus computer whiz Tim Perkins — the results are memorable in different ways. Plonsey's seemingly ceaseless circular blowing sets up a challenge, to which the percussionist responds in kind, bringing out the heavy artillery in terms of cymbals, snare and bass drums so that the reed assault is tempered. On the other hand, Butcher's flutter tonguing and ascending breath control matched with Perkins' whooshes, buzzes and rumbles allows Robair to gently color the outcome.

Nevertheless, the percussionist is too self-effacing on "Tonal Vibrations", recorded with Oakland, Calif.-multi instrumentalist Oluyemi Thomas. Thomas' soprano saxophone and clarinet are so upfront that until Robair finally asserts himself with a steadfast beat, the track begins to more resemble a solo reed(s) showcase than a duo excursion.

A similar conundrum presents itself when Robair, on theremin, begins playing off against the turntables and CD players of Japanese experimenter Otomo Yoshihide. "Inappropriations" allows the two to create an accelerated soundscape of humorous robotic intensity. But "Lead me Lord", which adds Splatter sidekick Myles Boisen on CD player to the duo nearly drowns under a cacophony of sounds which resemble a vacuum cleaner, agitated bird calls, satellite signals and snatches of a religious song. Only when the pre-recorded tune creates a bedrock theme do the instrumental pieces fall into place.

Surprisingly, considering how well the similar, spacey tones of his theremin mesh with the dusky string research of Birmingham, Ala.-violin ace LaDonna Smith on "A Mysterious Vision", their other duet, "Sklarking" ranks as the disc's least successful effort. Throughout, the two seem so intense in hitting the highest-pitched, squeakiest notes in dog whistle territory that listening becomes irritating rather than intriguing.

All in all, though, the few missteps are overcome by the better material. In fact, this disc may lead you to others where Robair plays with the same musician(s) all the way though.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Tangle 2. Inappropriations* 3. Balek Scales 4. Reckless & Sinful Extravagance 5. A Mysterious Vision* 6. Integument 7. Trnava 8.Adytum 9. Sklarking*

10. Tonal vibrations 11.Dark Pleasures 12. Lead Me, Lord* 13. Ceromancy 14. Integumentation

Personnel: Gino Robair (bowed, struck and motorized percussion, theremin*) with Dan Plonsey [track 4](clarinet); John Butcher [track 1](tenor saxophone); Oluyemi Thomas [track 10](soprano saxophone, alto clarinet, percussion); Dave Barrett [track 8] (saxes, saxcello); Carla Kihlstedt [tracks 3, 11] (violin); LaDonna Smith [tracks 5, 7, 9, 13] (violin, viola, voice); Myles Boisen [tracks 8, 12] (doubleneck guitar, bass, CD player); Matthew Sperry [tracks 3, 11] (bass); Tim Perkis [tracks 1, 6, 14](computer, synthesizer); Otomo Yoshihide [tracks 2, 12] (turntables, CD players)