Art Maker: Jason Robinson, musician and composer

  • Jazz saxophonist and composer Jason Robinson teaches music courses at Amherst College. Photo by Scott Friedlander

  • Jason Robinson has played and recorded with numerous musicians over the years; he notes on his Amherst College website that he’s “been lucky enough to appear on over 50 recordings.” Photo by Scott Friedlander

Published: 6/20/2019 3:47:51 PM
Modified: 6/20/2019 3:47:39 PM

Jason Robinson, who teaches jazz and popular music courses at Amherst College, is a longtime jazz saxophonist (and flutist) and composer whose music and scholarship is focused on improvisation. He’s been a busy performer in this area and in other parts of the country and has recorded with dozens of other musicians. He’s also been involved in telematic music: live music that’s performed simultaneously, via the internet, by players in separate, often distant locations.

And Robinson says he’s keeping busy with four other projects, including two recordings now being mixed: a duo with Boston guitarist Eric Hofbauer, and another “with two great friends and artists, the local percussion legend Bob Weiner and Boston bassist Bruno Raberg, who is originally from Sweden.”

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Jason Robinson: One new project is a quartet version of my Janus Ensemble that will feature pianist Joshua White, bassist Drew Gress, and percussionist Ches Smith. We record in New Haven in August. Last year I spent time along the Mendocino County coastline in California thinking about relationships between tides and coastal geography. Called “Harmonic Constituent,” a reference to oceanic conditions, I’ve drawn from these insights to create a collection of pieces for these amazing improvisers and collaborators. 

Another summer project is focused on writing. I’m a guest co-editor for the academic journal “Critical Studies in Improvisation” for an issue titled “Improvisation and the Liberal Arts.” We’re hoping to get the issue finished this summer, which promises to be an important contribution to improvisation studies.

HL: What do you draw inspiration from? Do you have any “Eureka!” moments?

JR: Life, love, community, and surroundings. And history. With as much humility as possible, I see myself as part of a long tradition of jazz and creative musicians, a tradition that includes people like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams as well as more contemporary folks like Nicole Mitchell, Vijay Iyer, and Tyshawn Sorey.

I’ve learned that so much of what draws me to music is connecting with other people. The most profound moments for me happen during performances when those on stage and those in the audience are all having a deep, emotional, collective experience.

HL: How do you know when your work is finished?

JR: There’s this old saying in jazz — an imperative statement — about horn players whose solos are too long: “Take the horn out of your mouth!”

HL: Name two artists you admire or have influenced your work. What about their art appeals to you?

JR: Henry Threadgill — his music contains a lifetime of learning about creative structures and instrumentations, plus some of the most infectious grooves I’ve heard. Billie Holiday — I think about her phrasing and rhythmic placement every day. And a third: Stevie Wonder. My wife and I had our heart chakras blown wide open when we saw him and his group perform a year or so ago!

HL: If you weren’t an artist, what do you think you’d be?

JR: A marine biologist. I love water and the life in and around it, especially the oceans. Although I don’t do it often now, I’m an avid surfer. My last surf trip was to the southwest of France. Those are some heavy beach breaks.

HL: Dream dinner party — who would you invite?

JR: I just had one! A housewarming, actually, as my wife, Jenny, and I recently moved into a new home in Franklin County. A bunch of friends helped us celebrate and my mom came from California and my grandma from Ohio. Pretty much perfect!

HL: What’s your go-to snack while working?

JR: Dark chocolate, and usually the darker the better. But maybe my age is starting to show, because I’ve recently returned to milk chocolate.

— Steve Pfarrer

Jason Robinson’s website

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