Jack Mouse & Scott Robinson

Snakeheads & Ladybugs
Tall Grass TG 8282

Roscoe Mitchell/Scott Robinson

Tone Ventures

Sciensonic SS07

By Ken Waxman

Unencumbered by shibboleths or styles, Scott Robinson has spent more than 30 years proving that musically one can be a jack of all trades, and a master of all. Having gigged with associates as different as Buck Clayton, Joe Lovano, Marshall Allen and Lionel Hampton, he’s more than adaptable. A crusader for obscure instruments, Robinson is proficient on such sound makers as the C-melody and bass saxophones, contrabass sarrusophone and baritone rothophone as well as cornet, clarinet and tenor saxophone. Like a tailor’s showroom mirrors that reveal you from many angles, these duo CDs illuminate multi-facets of Robinson’s sonic versatility. Snakeheads & Ladybugs matches him with Jack Mouse, a drummer-educator of equivalent experience. A graduate seminar in reed textures, Tone Ventures captures 14 instance of woodwind melding. His partner is Roscoe Mitchell, who has likewise mastered a music store-like collection of instruments.

Having played with Stan Kenton, Clark Terry, Gary Bartz and Peanuts Hucko – to pick random names– Mouse’s resourcefulness is never in question. However his dozen short duets with Robinson are freely improvised, without being free jazz. Imagine what would have resulted had pre-bop stylists been given absolute freedom to record what they wished; add a dollop of technical mastery and Snakeheads & Ladybugs’ focus become clearer. This unique world view is most transparent on “Backwards Glance”, which honors Gene Krupa’s and Benny Goodman’s duet on “Sing Sing Sing”. Mouse’s bass drum accents may emulate Krupa’s but his skillful cymbal work is undoubtedly post-swing, while Robison’s repeated tongue flurries come from John Coltrane not Bud Freeman. Split-second insinuations of other melodies can also be heard. “Free Bop” is actually more free swing, especially when Robinson caresses the theme, although the drummer’s pinpointed rolls and later reed tautness put a harder edge on the performance.

With a couple of exceptions that’s how most of the CD evolves. Mouse’s comfort in outputting nearly every sort of beat reaches an apogee on tracks such as “Orcan”, as he duplicates tabla-like pumps in tandem with Robinson’s breathy reed line; and “Dual Duel”, one of the few instances where his rhythm is as firmly in the bop mode as Robinson’s staccato reed bites reference the New Thing. Unconventional experimentation takes over twice: the title track and “Shapeshifter”. On the first, the two demonstrate how understated percussion pacing can crystallize tenor saxophone yelps and warbles into agreeable chromatic swing, while Robinson’s versatility is front-and-center on “Shapeshifter”. Shifting back and forth from cornet to C-melody saxophone, he effortlessly wraps brassy plunger growls and responsive reed slurs into a mellow line that is as old-timey modern as it is contemporarily antique.

Tone Ventures is far different. Recorded at Robison’s own ScienSonic Laboratories studio and replete with the warning: “Caution: Contains tonal initiatives for the venturesome listener”, the program is presented as being the sonic equivalent of observing nuclear scientists working with the most advanced technology. That is except scientists don’t swing. While Tone Ventures may be too experimental for the neo-cons, anyone familiar with reed advances since 1960 won’t be put off. That said, several of the tracks exist in Beta form: that is an idea is briefly exposed, then quickly abandoned without making a statement – sort of like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.

More notable are those tracks where the interface adds unique timbres to the reed duet and not just ones such “Tone Venture #13” where the wiggling echoes of Robinson’s Theremin underlie a climax of exploding then merging reed extensions. Instead the notable duets are ones which subvert expectations. The meeting of bass flute and bass recorder on “Tone Venture #6” for example doesn’t wallow in subterranean weightiness but instead advances the theme with such elephantine grace that the final sonic image is relaxed and pastoral. Also avoiding cavernous heaviness is “Tone Venture #10A”. Robinson’s sluggish contrabass sarrusophone snorts may be hefty enough to shake a skyscraper, but the looping echoes from Mitchell’s wind machine and resounds from little instruments add airy counterpoint, lightening the performance with agile gong-like pings. Balancing alto, tenor and mezzo-soprano sax plus jazzophone between them, Mitchell and Robinson emphasize the brassiness of their horns on “Tone Venture #12B”. Despite ligature whistles and contrasting plunger tones the resulting line is moderato and almost playful. Comparable exultant textures characterize “Tone Venture #14” as soprano and tenor saxophone plus baritone rothophone tremolos blend into an interface that suggests a bagpipe duetting with a songbird. Even “Tone Venture #11B”’s minnow verses whale face-off from sopranino and contrabass saxes reveals more than contrasts. Propelling an underlying rhythm the duo pushes both horns to their highest and lowest limits.

On these discs Robinson demonstrates not only the agility of unconventional reeds, but also his flexibility in contrasting duet situations.

Tracks: Snakeheads: Flutter; Bolero Incognito; Backward Glance; Two Minute March; Orcan; Dual Duel; Funk Infestation; Snakeheads & Ladybugs; Shapeshifter; Scorch; Fandango; FreeBop

Personnel: Snakeheads: Scott Robinson: tenor, C-melody saxophones, e-flat clarinet, cornet; Jack Mouse: drums

Tracks: Tone: Tone Venture #1; Tone Venture #2A; Tone Venture #10A; Tone Venture #16; Tone Venture #8; Tone Venture #11B; Tone Venture #3B; Tone Venture #!!C; Tone Venture #12B; Tone Venture #11D; Tone Venture #6; Tone Venture #11E; Tone Venture #13; Tone Venture #14

Personnel: Tone: Roscoe Mitchell: sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, bass recorder, baroque flute percussion, wind machine; Scott Robinson: “power bore” bugle, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, contrabass and slide saxophones; tarogato; jazzophone; contrabass sarrusophone; baritone rothophone; bass flute; Theremin, bass marimba, percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2015