Jason Robinson’s Janus Ensemble:

Resonant Geographies
pfMentum PFMCD 115

Using all the sonic colors available from an 11-piece ensemble, San Diego-based tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson has composed a seven-part suite that articulates straightforward swing without sacrificing exploratory touches. While recruiting some exceptional talent, Robinson’s writing emphases its uniqueness with a non-expected orchestration that includes three low-brass players, four reeds divided between saxophone and clarinets, two percussionists. plus double bass and guitar. While the expansive arrangements are sometimes enlarged enough to reflect Stan Kenton orchestra at its most restrained, the bedrock riffs and rhythms relate back to more subtle organization of the pre-war Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington bands.

Starting off “Facing East” with his own scene-setting tenor saxophone, Robinson’s double-tonguing and twitters set up the band’s percussive entrance and continue intersecting with Marty Ehrlich’s crying alto saxophone tones as guitarist Liberty Ellman’s rhythm licks prod the piece along with. Ehrlich’s skill as a Blues interpreter is notable throughout the disc, especially on tunes such as “Confluence” where his soulful output moves from flutter-tonguing to sheets of sound as the sections chug along like he best 1930s big band playing a train Blues. Solos are distributed organically among the band members as the suite evolves, with even the concluding “Outcropping” as notable for its instrumental showcasing as its efficient summing up of what was expressed earlier. Here Ches Smith and George Schuller demonstrate that two drum sets can be judicious as well as jarring, with a combination of designated textures and a wide variety of percussion add-ons, emphasizing the subtly of their duets, which are light years away from the clichéd JATP drum battles of the 1940s. Michael Dessen’s straight-ahead trombone pumping is also cushioned by surround-sound horn vamps, while Oscar Noriega’s brief bass clarinet solo is similarly accompanied as it outlines unruffled simplicity.

Still, the most superlative track not only showcases the sophistication of Robinson’s writing, but also demonstrates how versatile the sometimes earth-bound tuba can be. Expressed by Bill Lowe, low-pitched brass tones often sparkle with regular trombone-like swiftness plus high-pitched blasts, while deep-seated, expected rumbles are evoked for showiness as they moves the piece chromatically. Lowe’s tuba testimony also evolves atop stinging guitar runs and corkscrew reed bites from the tenor saxophonist.

While like the best bands such as Ellington’s, strength of interpretation on this CD somewhat depends on personnel, by giving these players a framework with which they can work, Robinson affirms his skill as a composer and orchestrator as well as a soloist.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Facing East 2. Futures Unimagined 3. Confluence 4. Dreaming 5. Facing West 6. Circuitry Unbound 7. Outcropping

Personnel: Michael Dessen (trombone); Bill Lowe (bass trombone, tuba); Marcus Rojas (tuba); Marty Ehrlich (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); Jason Robinson (tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute); JD Parran (alto and contra alto clarinets, bass flute); Oscar Noriega (Bb and bass clarinets, alto saxophone); Liberty Ellman (guitar); Drew Gress (bass); George Schuller (drums); Ches Smith (drums, glockenspiel)