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Clubland: Saxophonist Jason Robinson and the Green Street Trio channel Thelonious Monk

  • Thelonious Monk Image from Wikipedia

  • Jason Robinson of Amherst joined the Green Street Trio in Northampton this week for a night devoted to Thelonious Monk tunes. Photo by Scott Friedlander


Thursday, November 08, 2018

By KEN MAIURI

‘I cherish a few things in life,” saxophonist Jason Robinson was telling a packed house at City Sports Grille in Northampton on Election Night. “Playing [music] with friends. The right to vote. And Thelonious Monk.”

Robinson was the featured guest at this past Tuesday’s Northampton Jazz Workshop, and for his extended 75-minute set with the masterful Green Street Trio, the ensemble played an all-Monk program, eight songs that ranged from the straightforwardly romantic to the tongue-twistingly busy.

The venue, tucked inside the Spare Time Northampton bowling alley, was bustling with one of the of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen in the space — at least 100 eaters and drinkers and listeners (and numerous “I Voted” stickers). The staff had to pull extra chairs out of the back room; bartenders did double duty, coming out to wait on tables.

Pianist and emcee Paul Arslanian acknowledged the big audience, and introduced “our local quartet” (“Did you say ‘loco’ quartet’?” Robinson joked), which included the rest of the Green Street Trio, bassist George Kaye and drummer Jon Fisher.

They started with a straightforward one, “Bright Mississippi,” which gave the group lots of room to play around rhythmically. Arslanian landed angular note clusters into the keys like question marks and exclamation points, while Robinson cut loose over the top.

After the song swung to a close, Kaye was already shaking out his right hand from the the workout, and Arslanian jumped right into “Four In One,” one of Monk’s most Monk-ish songs, with a hook that’s built on a crazy up-down flurry of notes. Was the sax taking some shortcuts in the maze-like melody? The tune is a toughie.

“[Monk] wrote some really hard songs … like this one,” Robinson said during his introduction to “Trinkle Tinkle,” another one of the composer’s uniquely catchy pieces, a song that requires fingers to flit over keys like hummingbirds just to get the tune right.

The classic “Ruby My Dear,” a longtime jazz standard, made the perfect romantic soundtrack for one couple at the bar, nestling tight. Arslanian worked in one of Monk’s trademark chromatic runs down the keys, Robinson built his solo into a torrential rain of notes, and Kaye snuck a “Happy Trails” figure into the bass line now and then for a playful touch.

Next was Monk’s ornery tune “Friday the 13th,” which consists of one nagging, minimal melody over a repetitive, descending motif. Compared to a typical Monk composition, it’s so hazard-free that the band had some loose fun with it. They got collectively wild at one point, with Robinson playing an insistent melodic figure as Fisher built up a head of rhythmic steam underneath, full of boisterous drum fills.

The final tune of the night was “Evidence,” one of Monk’s most mischievous off-kilter themes. The group’s version started with Robinson alone, stretching out with a lengthy improvisation. (During a short space in his solo, the “barroom piano ringtone” on someone’s phone went off in the audience — they couldn’t have timed it better if they’d tried.) 

Robinson’s solo morphed into the song’s spacious and seriously syncopated melody, and for the rest of the band to get on the same page and join in, it must have been like running and jumping out onto a high wire, blindfolded. It took a few seconds for everyone to get balanced, but the crowd applauded the derring-do.

A guest trumpet player added another texture to the sound, and near the end of “Evidence,” thanks to some on-the-fly decisions about the arrangement-in-motion, the two soloists played together while the Green Street Trio laid out. It was a boisterous moment, and maybe kind of a mess (Arslanian soon began adding chords underneath to help keep time), but the room came alive. 

When Monk used to really feel the music during his concerts, sometimes he’d get up from the piano and dance. The short unadorned horn break and its New Orleans-y energy almost made me leave behind the garlic knots and notebook and do the same.