Lilac Dawn by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Lilac Dawn 
Azure Miles Records

One can't help but admire Michael Robinson: over the course of a career spanning multiple decades, he's composed more than 400 works, has issued 100-plus albums on his Azure Miles imprint, and has developed a unique musical style deeply informed by American, South Asian, and European traditions and inspired by artists such as Zakir Hussain, Ravi Shankar, Bill Evans, Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, and others. Each year one or two new albums appear, each recording naturally evolving out of what's come before while adding to it in unpredictable and imaginative ways. Further to that, his production methodology is also unique: although the performance of a typical Robinson piece sounds as if spontaneous improvisation is involved, his compositions are, amazingly, entirely programmed using the Meruvina and thus fully notated.

Lilac Dawn upholds the tradition in striking manner. While on the one hand it perpetuates in its title setting the wild, intoxicating spirit that's infused some of his recent output (e.g., 2016's “Celestial Crocodile”), on the other it balances that ferocity with the becalmed meditation “Morning-Star.” Even better, the transition between such diametric poles is smoothed by a central piece, “Yellow Chandelier,” that while rhythmically animated advances languorously compared to the frenetic opener. Novel sounds also distinguish these new pieces from what's come before. The title work, for example, is framed by exotic flourishes, at the start by a dazzling flurry of female voices and percussion and at the end by the battering of a Chinese gong along with a female voice, and closing out “Yellow Chandelier” is a ban gu that Robinson's somehow managed to make sound like the chirp of a cicada. It's moments like these that help distinguish one Robinson recording from another.

As mentioned, “Lilac Dawn” dizzies the listener with careening melodic and percussive cross-currents that unspool for eleven kaleidoscopic minutes. With a tamboura drone faintly audible in the background, splashes of acoustic piano clusters and melodic arcs roar alongside a rapid, nonstop array of tabla, dholak, and dhol patterns and a driving drum pulse—a wild roller-coaster ride of a performance that's brought to an abrupt halt by the aforementioned gong and voice.

“Yellow Chandelier” opens radiantly with Indonesian cymbal accents before settling into its mid-tempo, tablas-enhanced groove with clarinet the initial soloing voice and trumpet the second. The less frantic pace encourages visual associations to emerge as the material advances, and, during the clarinet episode in particular, a twilight image forms of a camels-led caravan making its slow trek across the desert, the silhouette forms growing ever less distinct as the sun sets below an endless horizon.

Dialing the intensity level down even more, “Morning-Star” dispenses with percussion altogether for a haunting, twenty-one-minute meditation that pairs the expressions of a bowed string kemanche with bells and male voices. At times one's attention is so captivated by the kemanche's babbling that the vocal element almost goes unnoticed. Robinson does something interesting here, too, however, in pitching the male voices at a low register first and then gradually elevating them by octaves as the piece develops. In fact, they're initially so subtly woven into the instrumental design their presence verges on subliminal, though they become conspicuous when their initial hum morphs into an extended, choir-like “ah” at the six-minute mark.

In following the frenetic “Lilac Dawn” with the soothing sojourn “Yellow Chandelier” and hypnotic inner exploration “Morning-Star,” Robinson not only creates a satisfying transition through three distinct tonalities but does so while also enriching his soundworld with unusual new shadings. That he's been able to so consistently refresh his creative output year in and year out in such manner is nothing short of remarkable, and it's we of course who are the ever-so-fortunate beneficiaries.

March 2017

textura is a Canadian music journal