Mango-Bird by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Mango-Bird
Azure Miles Records

Every Michael Robinson recording is immediately recognizable as his, yet each also surprises in unexpected ways, his latest no exception: while Mango-Bird includes many of the hallmarks of the composer's work, the forty-three-minute release brings less familiar facets into the fold. Defying straightforward genre classification, the typical Robinson piece is constructed electronically using his personally customized Meruvina and exemplifies qualities associated with classical, jazz, and Eastern forms, though others might also form part of the mix. The three settings on Mango-Bird, on the other hand, do tip the balance in particular stylistic directions with the opening pair aligning themselves to jazz and the third hip-hop, of all things.

That jazz emphasis derives in part from Robinson's decision to emphasize electric piano timbres in the material, with Wurlitzer front and center in Dream-Realm and Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer deployed in the title piece. An association with ‘70s jazz naturally arises when electric piano's used as a central instrument, but the connection also establishes itself through the improv-like flow of the music. Compositional structure's present, of course—every Robinson piece is through-composed, even if it sounds like an ensemble playing spontaneously—yet there's a definite free-form character to the material, the opening Dream-Realm in particular, that gives it the character of a live, onstage jam.

Certain Robinson signatures are definitely present in that opener, a percussion arsenal, specifically Indian tabla, dholak, dhol, Indonesian wadon, Chinese tang gu, African dunun, and Western drums, for starters; in addition, a droning choir of male voices is present throughout the piece, similar to how one's been used in other recent work by the composer; his penchant for unusual time signatures surfaces here, too, in the deployment of an eleven-beat drum pattern. Yet if the material in this downtempo raga feels looser and less determined by compositional structure, it's no less compelling when the interactions between the electric piano and percussion instruments are so electric. Chattering incessantly, the latter generate a constant source of stimulation for the electric piano to play against.

Whereas Dream-Realm hews to its design without deviation, the twenty-minute title composition segues from a slower first half to a rapid, double-time second. While the percussion and vocal treatments are much the same in the two pieces, the sound design in the second's a tad more elaborate, with trumpet bringing a fanfare-like quality to the material and Fender Rhodes timbres accentuated in the opening part and Wurlitzer thereafter. Whatever their differences, both performances conjure the image of a Chick Corea-like figure onstage at a ‘70s jazz festival jamming with five or six percussionists, their interplay so smooth it induces a swoon in sun-drenched listeners receptive to the charms of the musical offering.

Departing dramatically in style and presentation from the other pieces is Night-Incense, which retains the Wurlitzer electric piano and male voices but now pairs them with finger cymbals, Indian bells, and rotating drums. Instrumentation changes are less significant, though, than Robinson's exploration of sounds and rhythms associated with hip-hop and beat-boxing. Night-Incense lurches at a dirge-like tempo, with in this instance the electric piano and chiming finger cymbal melodies doused by rain showers of bells and rotating drums and punctuated by mouth-generated percussion effects. The result is unlike anything else in Robinson's discography, or at least the substantial portion of it with which I'm familiar. Decades on from his first released material, Mango-Bird sees the composer discovering new ways to keep his music fresh and startling the listener with inspired moves.

April 2018

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