GARY HASSAY/ANNE LEBARON

Blackwater Bridge
Drimala DR 02-347-02

JASON ROBINSON
Tandem
Accretions ALP 025CD

Making a list of dedicated harpists who excel in — or even play — free form music doesn’t take too long. In improvised music, for instance, there’s Briton Rhodri Davies and American Zeena Parkins and … Davies and Parkins. In jazz there was Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane and, … unsurprisingly, Ashby and Coltrane.

However BLACKWATER BRIDGE, an exacting duo disc featuring alto saxophonist Gary Hassay, definitely adds harpist Anne LeBaron to that stellar company. Considering the unadorned musical circumstances here, her work may be even more noteworthy. After all, solo saxophone doesn’t provide much back up.

LeBaron, who is also a composer and educator in California, has been experimenting with her axe since the 1970s and has played and recorded with other visionaries like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and guitarist Derek Bailey. Hassay, from Allentown, Penn., has been involved in free music since the late 1970s and collaborated with a host of like-minded musicians, most notably as part of the Ye Ren trio with bassist William Parker and percussionist Toshi Makihara. Yet a two-person session like this throws a musicians’ talents, skills and weaknesses in even bolder relief, with only one partner upon whom to rely

Saxophonist and flautist Jason Robinson approaches TANDEM, his duo disc in a completely different manner. Insisting that the CD “attempts to prove that the ‘duo’ is a floating signifier, a word without a fixed meaning”, he has lined up an octet of different confreres playing in wildly different idioms including jazz, ambient, electronic and New music to prove his point. Whether he succeeds in making his case over the almost 80 minute of the session, depends on his partner of the time. Certainly it proves the adaptability of Robinson, whose experience encompasses work on Anthony Davis’ jazz-based opera Tania, touring with funk bands and theatre groups, and who is working towards a PhD in music at the University of California in San Diego.

Dealing first with the fixed duo of Hassay and LeBaron, it’s definitely her show all the way. While the alto saxophonist often moves between energy tones and silences, using chirps and double tonguing, he seems to be repeating the same pattern in the background. It’s one part 1960s Energy Music, one part hushed BritImprov, with both parts monochromic.

Meanwhile LeBaron displays a lot more than the usual glissandos we associate with harps. She buzzes like an electric guitar, uses her lowest strings for string bass ostinato, clawhammers out a few banjo notes and produces tones as harsh as nails scratching across a blackboard. Perhaps it’s the use of sound sculpture that allows her to create this way. Certainly on “Betty’s Place” at points she seems to be ringing bells, exploring a prepared piano, and — if it’s possible — even bouncing objects off her strings. Because of this challenge as well, Hassay is roused from his usual adagio pace up to andante for a few minutes. However on “FRISSON” when what appears to be the sounds of a squirrel scurries up and down the strings are succeeded by a real dance melody from the harp, he seems to squelch the excitement with a prolonged renal honk.

Most illustrative is the longest and most abstract track “G, K and the Lady Gray”, which goes from barely audible to high energy in slightly more than 11 minutes. As the harpist plucks strings and crashes cymbals, Hassay breathes out chirping reverberated grace notes, often squeaking in hummingbird range. After a passage where it literally appears as if she’s creating delicate court music from a Chinese guzheng, LeBaron begins double timing, strumming away as if she had a folksy 12-string guitar. Hassay counters with a loud heavy vibrato as the sound field subsides to mere colored noises and offhanded plucks. Elsewhere, LeBaron works up a chorus of multi-string strums as if she was an entire Mexican Mariachi band, saws across her string as if she was powerfully attacking a jazz bass, and comps behind the saxist’s note holding and reverberated honks the way a hard bop pianist feeds the soloist.

Despite the many-stringed instrument’s reputation, LeBaron has no fear of diatonic discord on these 10 tunes and that’s what makes the CD so fascinating.

Robinson’s 14 (!) compositions are a different matter. With so many duo — and in one case trio — partners, there are times TANDEM comes across as a student study, with the doctoral candidate apparently interested in emphasizing every musical genre with which he’s proficient.Unfortunately quantity doesn’t equal quality — although standards are high throughout — but there are times you feel like shaking the tenor man by the shoulder and suggesting that he concentrate on one thing.

Seemingly the most realized track here, “C.T.” — possibly dedicated to Cecil Taylor — is at more than 19½-minutes the longest by about 10 minutes. A duet between Robinson on tenor saxophone and composer/academic Davis on piano, it’s an extensive composition that resembles those duets Archie Shepp did with Horace Parlan or those David Murray did with Dave Burrell a lot more than anything ever recorded by the real CT. A kaleidoscope of different moods, it develops as Robinson begins sonically testing the parts of his horn, and Davis offers a quasi-classical interlude, all chords, rambling arpeggios and pinpoint single notes. Then as the piano man turns to minor key, bluesy ivory tickles, mainstream sax tones appear only to vanish within multiphonics and extended honks. Robinson’s unaccompanied section seems to centre around circular rolls of single notes mixed with overblowing, a more radical imagining than what some solo reedists like Anthony Braxton have produced. While this double solo — which is what “C.T.” is rather than a duo — is ultimately satisfying, many of the other tracks seem to speed by for no other reason than to show off the saxman’s adaptability.

The tracks with Marcelo Radulovich’s crackling static samples and buzz of electronics, for instance, allow the saxophonist to highlight his skills, and his own sampling to such an extent that what could be a penny whistle, a pastoral flute and some happy-sounding clarinet appear and disappear. In this robotic context, there are times his saxophone seems to be shaking and echoing with a pseudo-Varitone attachment. Meanwhile the trilling sax lines coupled with the metallic whirring of Hans Fjellestad’s analog synthesizer makes it sound as if the two are in literal interstellar space rather than expanding on the Rashied Ali-John Coltrane album of that name.

That album was probably the inspiration for “In The Tradition” with drummer Nathan Hubbard. The percussionist creates megarhythms of flams, rolls and paradiddles, while the saxist honks, swoops and overblows, until both subside into some sort of electronics. Veteran free bassist Peter Kowald, on the other hand, uses his voice and bow(s) to amplify the tones from his bull fiddle so that by the end it appears that he and Robinson on tenor saxophone are two parts of the same instrument.

Duets with trombonist/educator George Lewis are more democratic, but then again the ‘bone man has plenty of experience with this in his work with reedists like Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, among others. He pulls out his vocabulary of lip smacks and blows, infinite slide positions and huffing and puffing from within the horn. At times trombone-amplified verbal mumbles and Donald Duck-like squawks serve as his contribution. Robinson answers with trills, growls, multiphonics and protracted tongue slaps. Both tunes end with the professor and graduate student throwing phrases back and forth as if in negotiation for a mark on a thesis paper.

Maybe TANDEM could be heard as part of that thesis process. Then again perhaps Robinson’s doctoral studies are more focused. This is a good album for those who want to investigate every facet of Robinson’s music. It certainly suggests that once he finally decides what he wants to do when he grows up, the result will likely be memorable.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Backwater: 1. Raudeluna, Before a Full Moon 2. Memoire Involontaire 3. For Giaccomo 4. When Marcia Speaks 5. Betty's Place 6. Never Told Tales 7. G, K and the Lady Gray 8. FRISSON 9. She, Has Say 10. Joe Knows

Personnel: Backwater: Gary Hassay (alto saxophone); Anne LeBaron (harp, Harry Bertoia sound sculpture, percussion)

Track Listing: 1. Now and Here* 2. A Song for Tomorrow&# 3. Hogs and Swine+ 4. Same Old Station (SOS)*~ 5. C.T. 6. Discrete Jungle~ 7. Dark Matter# 8. In the Tradition^9. Birdrock Dub$ 10. Telepatheomatic@ 11. Tea with George+ 12. Sblat& 13. Black Market Higgle@ 14. Tbone For Two$

Personnel: George Lewis (trombone)+; Michael Dessen (trombone)$; Jason Robinson (alto and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet, live electronics) Anthony Davis (piano)*; Marcelo Radulovich (guitar, samples, electronics)~; Peter Kowald (bass)#; Stephanie Johnson (electronics)&; Nathan Hubbard (percussion, live electronics)^; Hans Fjellestad (analog synthesizer)@