I hear that train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ‘round the bend
Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
American saxophonist and scholar Jason Robinson grew up in the shadows of the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California. Many of his early years were spent riding his bicycle past the property of the famed Folsom Prison, immortalized by Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison Blues.” Robinson was around music from the get-go; his father is a rock guitarist and songwriter, who often invited him into his studio to help ride the faders in the days before automated mixing.
After a failed attempt to study classical saxophone technique, Robinson’s initial musical inspiration came from a combination of influences: Louis Jordan’s infectious mixture of jump blues and bebop, Jimmy Hendrix’s outrageous experimentalism, Charlie Parker’s virtuosic redefining of the alto saxophone and jazz language, and the Beatle’s late-period psychedelia.
While a high school student, Robinson began hanging on the Sacramento jazz scene. In the mid-1980s, Sac-town had a host of venues that supported a thriving local community of accomplished musicians. This was a diverse scene—straight-ahead, fusion, experimental jazz—that witnessed, among other things, a regular Tuesday series by the legendary saxophonist John Tchicai. This eclecticism had a profound impact on Robinson’s development.
After a year at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (ironically located on the edge of South Central), Robinson settled in the idyllic Sonoma County and pursued studies at Sonoma State University in Music (Jazz Studies) and Philosophy. SSU’s jazz program was a diamond in the rough, a remarkably demanding curriculum in theory, improvisation, and composition crafted by the late bassist and composer Mel Graves. It was also close to the San Francisco Bay Area’s diverse jazz and popular scenes—one of the primary reasons Robinson was drawn to the area.
It was in Sonoma County that many of Robinson’s most important musical partnerships and philosophical perspectives first developed. He co-founded the group Cannonball (combining cutting edge jazz and rap), was the first saxophonist in the influential roots reggae group Groundation (combining jazz and roots reggae), collaborated with a huge variety of Bay Area jazz musicians, founded Circumvention Music, and released his first album, From the Sun (1998/Circumvention).
The Bay Area provided a diverse array of musical opportunities that blurred stylistic boundaries and intersected with other social and political contexts. Robinson toured with the San Francisco-based New Pickle Circus, a European style circus founded in 1974 that is decidedly against the use of animals. He also performed with the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe, a commedia dell’arte political theater group that persistently confronts some of the most challenging social and political questions in American culture. Robinson performed on two seasons, Damaged Care and City For Sale.
In the fall of 1998 Robinson moved to San Diego to begin graduate studies in the Critical Studies and Experimental Practices Program in the Department of Music at the University of California, San Diego. He studied under influential trombonist and scholar George E. Lewis and pianist and composer Anthony Davis. Robinson’s scholarship took a marked turn towards cultural studies, towards the theorizing of improvised and experimental musical practices within the context of social and cultural formations. In San Diego, he worked extensively with his trio—the Jason Robinson Trio—that featured virtuosic local bassist Rob Thorsen and drummer Brett Sanders.
During this period Robinson began to perform with several touring groups in the jazz, jam band, and reggae scenes. Continuing to foster his Bay Area roots, he often performed with Cannonball, Groundation, and other musicians based in San Francisco. He also toured with Wise Monkey Orchestra and the Damn Dirty Apes, two San Diego-based jam bands, and began to work with a variety of Southern California reggae groups.
Robinson's interest in reggae began in the late 1990s, initially through his friendship and early involvement with Groundation (who have achieved widespread international success in their combination of roots reggae, dub experimentalism, and jazz improvisation). Through Groundation, Robinson had the opportunity to record with reggae legends Don Carlos, Ras Michael, Marcia Higgs, the Scientist, and Cedric Myton of the Congos. After moving to San Diego, Robinson became a member of the bilingual (Spanish-English) group Elijah Emanuel and the Revelations. He has also performed with Eek-a-Mouse, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, and a host of other local reggae groups. He was featured on Toots and the Maytals’ Grammy-nominated 2007 album Light Your Light (Fantasy). He can be heard on a cut that features Toots in duo with Bonnie Raitt.
In the late 1990s, Robinson also focused on developing long-term collaborative groups. In 1999, he co-founded Cosmologic with trombonist Michael Dessen, bassist Scott Walton, and percussionist Nathan Hubbard. After several months of weekly performances at the Galoka Jazz Scene (a vegetarian Indian restaurant/jazz club) in La Jolla (an area of San Diego), Cosmologic recorded their first live album, Staring at the Sun (2000/Circumvention). Some ten years and three releases later, Cosmologic continues to thrive as an experimental quartet-cum-composers collective. They have performed at festivals and prominent venues throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Europe. Their fourth album, Eyes in the Back of My Head, was released in May 2008 by Cuneiform Records.
In 2003 Robinson co-founded the Cross Border Trio, a collaborative transnational group that has performed extensively throughout Mexico. With bi-national membership (Mexico and USA), the Cross Border Trio theorizes contemporary jazz within the increasingly transnational nature of experimental music practice. Their debut album, New Directions (2006/Circumvention), achieved widespread critical acclaim, and they continue thrive in the fertile social and cultural landscapes of the US/Mexico border (frontera) region.
In 2002, Robinson released his second album as a leader, Tandem (Accretions). A conceptual “duo” album, Tandem features Robinson in a variety of settings with a stellar cast of experimentalists including George Lewis, Anthony Davis, the late German bassist Peter Kowald, and others. Garnering much praise, Tandem was chosen as a “critic’s pick” for 2002 in JazzTimes Magazine.
While in San Diego, Robinson was a founding member of Trummerflora, a musician collective dedicated to supporting creative music in and beyond Southern California. Largely modeled after the influential African American musician collectives of the 1960s and 70s (the AACM, Black Artists Guild, etc…), Trummerflora continues to produce concert series, an annual festival of creative music (Spring Reverb), and release compilation albums featuring member artists.
Robinson’s work in Trummerflora resonates with his broader interest in presenting experimental music to new listener and musician communities. He believes that the commercially-driven conservatism of the mainstream music industry marginalizes musical practices that fall outside of the “mainstream” – this is true not only of rock, pop, and country music, but also with jazz, reggae, and other musics that are not part of the massive American music industries. These pressures and processes leave very little room for experimental music in local communities; Trummerflora is devoted to creating a space within local communities to enable people to hear and enjoy different music.
This kind of activism has carried over to Robinson’s teaching. In 2003 he served as Curriculum Director for the inaugural year of the UCSD Jazz Camp, a unique week-long program dedicated to exposing jazz students to a decidedly broad spectrum of jazz and improvised music practices—“from open improvisation to mainstream,” as the camp’s byline celebrates. Several years later, Robinson continues to teach composition/arranging, improvisation, and saxophone masterclasses at the thriving camp.
Robinson has taught in a variety of contexts that range private instruction in woodwind performance and improvisation, to large enrollment (400+) lecture courses at research universities. His teaching and research interests coincide: problematizing the notion of “jazz” to include a broader spectrum of African American experimental music, locating improvised and experimental musical practices within the social contexts from which they emerge, analyzing the continued globalization of popular and improvised/experimental musics, seeking to understand the relationship between music and cultural identity. He has taught courses on jazz and African American music, Jamaican popular music, African and African-diasporic popular musics, American popular music, improvised music, jazz composition, and a host of other topics. Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Music at Amherst College; he has also taught at the University California, Irvine, the University of California, San Diego and several community colleges in California. For more information on his scholarship and teaching, click here.
Robinson’s current musical interests thrive in the fertile overlaps between improvisation and composition, acoustic music and electronics, tradition and experimentalism. Initially a devotee of post-1960s jazz and creative music, Robinson's music is a modern amalgam of cutting-edge trends in jazz practice and electroacoustic music. Robinson is a critically acclaimed distinct voice in a new generation of creative musicians in equal dialogue with jazz, popular music, experimental music, and electronic music. Fall 2010 marked a watershed in Robinson's output as a leader. He released three concurrent albums showcasing an enormous breadth of creative work, including The Two Faces of Janus (Cuneiform), featuring a New York-based ensemble that includes Drew Gress, Liberty Ellman, George Schuller, Marty Ehrlich and Rudresh Mahanthappa; Cerulean Landscape (Clean Feed), featuring the long time collaboration of Robinson and acclaimed pianist and composer Anthony Davis; and Cerberus Reigning (Accretions), the much anticipated second installment of the "Cerberus" trilogy, featuring Robinson's solo electroacoustic music. He performs regularly as a soloist (acoustically and with electronics), with his group the Janus Ensemble, and in a variety of collaborative contexts. He has performed at festivals and prominent venues in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe and/or recorded with Peter Kowald, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Drew Gress, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Marty Ehrlich, Eugene Chadbourne, Earl Howard, Toots and the Maytals, Groundation, Bertram Turetzky, Mark Dresser, John Russell, Roger Turner, Gerry Hemingway, Kei Akagi, Mel Graves, Liberty Ellman, Babatunde Lea, Mel Martin, Marco Eneidi, Lisle Ellis, Raphe Malik, Mike Wofford, Philip Gelb, J.D. Parran, Dana Reason, David Borgo, Contemporary Jazz Orchestra (at Pearl's, San Francisco), the La Jolla Symphony, SONOR (UCSD), and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, among others. As a scholar, Robinson's work unpacks the relationship between improvised and popular musics, experimentalism, and cultural identity. He has published articles and reviews in Ethnomusicology, Jazz Perspectives, and Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation. Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Music at Amherst College and holds a Ph.D. in Music from the University of California, San Diego. A West Coast transplant now living in New England, he is married to Stephanie Robinson, an acclaimed performer, composer, and electronic musician.
The music of American saxophonist and scholar Jason Robinson ("rugged and scintillating," New York Times) thrives in the fertile overlaps between improvisation and composition, acoustic music and electronics, tradition and experimentalism. Initially a devotee of post-1960s jazz and creative music, Robinson is celebrated for bringing together various historical directions in jazz--bebop, post-bop, the avant-garde--with an improvisatory and compositional sensibility drawn from and extending the languages of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Lester Young. His musical interests, however, span far and wide. He is a critically acclaimed distinctive voice in a new generation of creative musicians in equal dialogue with jazz, popular music, experimental music, and electronic music. Robinson's primary group is his New York-based Janus Ensemble, which ranges in size from a quintet with reedist Marty Ehrlich, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer George Schuller, to the full nine-piece version of the group with the addition of reedist JD Parran, trombonist and tubist Bill Lowe, tubist Marcus Rojas, and drummer Ches Smith. The group's latest release is Tiresian Symmetry (Cuneiform, 2012), which was supported by a tour of the US Northeast and Canada in February 2014, including appearances at the 25th season of the Magic Triangle Concert Series at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Casa del Popolo in Montreal, Roulette in Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Robinson has released 14 albums as leader or co-leader and appeared on nearly 50 albums in total. He performs regularly as a soloist (acoustically and with electronics), with his group the Janus Ensemble, and in a variety of collaborative contexts. He has performed at festivals and prominent venues in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, and throughout Europe and/or recorded with Peter Kowald, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Amiri Baraka, Drew Gress, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Marty Ehrlich, Eugene Chadbourne, Earl Howard, Toots and the Maytals, Groundation, Bertram Turetzky, Mark Dresser, John Russell, Roger Turner, Gerry Hemingway, Kei Akagi, Mel Graves, Liberty Ellman, Babatunde Lea, Mel Martin, Marco Eneidi, Lisle Ellis, Raphe Malik, Mike Wofford, Philip Gelb, JD Parran, Dana Reason, David Borgo, Contemporary Jazz Orchestra (at Pearl's, San Francisco), the La Jolla Symphony, SONOR (UCSD), and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, among others. As a scholar, Robinson’s work investigates the relationship between improvised and popular musics, experimentalism, and cultural identity. He has published articles and reviews in Ethnomusicology, Jazz Perspectives, and Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation. Robinson is an Assistant Professor of Music at Amherst College and holds a Ph.D. in Music from the University of California, San Diego. A West Coast transplant now living in New England, he is married to Stephanie Robinson, an acclaimed performer, composer, and electronic musician.
“…a potent improviser who occasionally steps into the Albert Ayler zone…thoughtful writing and bold instincts.”
-Bill Milkowski, JazzTimes
"["Silence Becomes a Roar," from Fingerprint, is a] complex, multi-section tour de force that draws melodic and harmonic inspiration from Duke Ellington and Gil Evans... the saxophonist himself has a warm expressive tone, occasionally dipping into freer realms yet always staying true to the structure of his compositions."
-Richard Moule, Signal to Noise
" "Brav und eingängig sind die falschen Begriffe. Intensität und Intimität treffen es viel genauer... Unbedingte Empfehlung." ["Good and unusual are the wrong terms. Intensity and intimacy meet it more exactly... Absolute recommendation."]
-Volkmar Mantei, Ragazzi
-Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times
"Robinson shines... Provocative and rewarding, Tandem makes it clear that Robinson's artistic evolution should be most fruitful."
-George Varga, San Diego Union Tribune
-AMG (All Music Guide)
"[Robinson] brings some humor into the traditionally dour world of experimental music"
-Stuart Kremsky, Cadence Magazine
-Andy Hamilton, The Wire
"sessions of scouring and mercilessly carcinogenic improvisation; speak softly, and carry a big sax"
-Prem Lall, KUSF 90.3 San Francisco
"Robinson's special gift is an emotional intensity that keeps things at the boiling point."
-Jazz Now Magazine
"Robinson plays his tenor with singes of fire."
"Long gone are the days when things West Coast were considered pallid in relation to anything East Coast, and for any of the doubters out there, here's the proof positive."