Celestial Crocodile and Honu Morning by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Celestial Crocodile and Honu Morning 
Azure Miles Records

Someone studying Greek Mythology might conceivably experience Michael Robinson's latest recording as a study in contrast between Dionysian and Apollonian modes of being, as the first composition, “Celestial Crocodile,” exhibits qualities associated with Dionysus—wildness, abandon, and intoxication—and the second, “Honu Morning,” implies connections to Apollo by way of order, control, and stability. (This isn't, admittedly, the first time we've noted the Dionysian character of Robinson's work, though in this case the urge to make the connection is all the stronger given the partnering of “Celestial Crocodile” with the Apollonian “Honu Morning.”)

Based on the morning raga Ahir Bhairav, “Celestial Crocodile” (the title borrowed from an Allen Ginsberg poem) picks up where the preceding release's “Rain-Mist” left off in positioning piano as the main melodic voice; further to that, the new recording shares with its predecessors other characteristics: as before Robinson exploits the seemingly unlimited sound-generating potential of his Meruvina (with a slightly larger arsenal deployed in the first of the two settings), and both pieces are underpinned by tamboura drones. Much as he did on Moonrise and Rain-Mist, whose “Moonrise” drew upon Snoop Dogg's “So Many Pros” (among other sources) for inspiration, Robinson references hip-hop again, this time by alluding melodically to 2Pac's “California Love” on “Celestial Crocodile.”

Despite the presence of a tripartite structure, “Celestial Crocodile” plays like an uninterrupted live jam with a pianist and percussionist sparring aggressively for the full measure of its thirty-three minutes. It's not without structure, however: a declamatory trumpet fanfare introduces the piece and subsequently surfaces with variations in three sections. Whereas the keyboard timbre remains generally the same, the percussion sounds vary, with Robinson contrasting Indonesian and Indian drums with Brazilian percussion in the central part. During some sections, piano and drums are heard together; at other times, the pianist recedes from view and the percussionists solo, filling the air with dizzying displays. Structural details aside, the piece plays like an especially wild roller-coaster ride with the piano careening at high velocity and a demonic level of energy unleashed throughout. No one could reasonably claim the piece is wanting in the stimulation department.

Similar to how the piano and percussion instruments interact in “Celestial Crocodile,” a trumpet and kane conduct an ongoing conversation within “Honu Morning” (the title references green sea turtles Robinson encountered in Maui, honu being the creature's Hawaiian name), albeit in a much more peaceful manner consistent with the alap style. Two tambouras provide the sitar drone-like foundation for this meditative raga, with clear contrast between the regal trumpet and the Japanese kane bell timbres audible throughout. Coming as it does after the feverish intensity of the opening setting, the contemplative, largely call-and-response style of “Honu Morning” acts as a calming restorative, even if moments of intensity do occasionally arise in the rapid-fire flurries of the front-line instruments.

Robinson's material has never sounded more vibrant and alive than on the new recording, something that's not only attributable to the music but also Catharine Wood's mastering involvement. Material of such density poses a challenge to even the most experienced ear, but Wood has managed to retain the music's dynamic punch without at the same time sacrificing clarity. Similar to Moonrise and Rain-Mist in this regard, Robinson was also wise to include two compositions on the release, and especially such contrasting ones, as Celestial Crocodile and Honu Morning is significantly enriched by the juxtaposition. However compelling each piece is individually, their collective impact is bolstered when they're presented together.

September 2016

textura is a Canadian music publication