Ocean Avenue by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Ocean Avenue 
Azure Miles Records

Certain elements surface in every Michael Robinson production that instantly identify it as one of his, among them distinctive Meruvina-sourced instrument timbres, an ever-percolating percussion foundation, and the composer's predilection for sinuous melodies. Yet while those and other signature details mark a setting as Robinson's, every release confounds expectations to varying degrees. Whereas one emphasizes complex compositional structures, for example, another concentrates on rhythm-centered workouts.

And so it is that Ocean Avenue both meets with expectations yet surprises, too: while all (and many more) of those aforementioned qualities are in place, the recording surprises in the compositional approach used for its two long-form pieces, the first, the effervescent title track, thirty-five minutes in duration and the second, the dirge-like Encanto Drive, thirty. Common to both pieces, despite extreme differences, is their handling of time, which is heavily influenced by Robinson's decades-long study of Indian classical music and how it regards “the present moment [as] being eternal as opposed to leading somewhere in the future. In other words, the present is so captivating there is no conscious desire to be anywhere else.” That idea permeates both works insofar as each could conceivably have been allowed to extend far longer than their designated durations.

Arranged for trumpet, piano, clarinet, drums, cymbals, and tamboura, Ocean Avenue (titled after a historic street in Brooklyn) uses as its predicating principle one central to raga involving the interplay between primary melodic and percussion voices. Yet it also draws for inspiration from a surprising source, “Je Vivroie Liement” by fourteenth-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut. Robinson follows the A-B-A structure of the song in demarcating three sections within his composition: the first follows a clarinet's voicing of Machaut's material with a trumpet-and-piano duet (the latter referred to as ‘jugalbandi' in Indian classical music); the second repeats the instrument arrangement with now the B part of the song voiced; and the third repeats the arrangement a final time but the focus now on the song's concluding part. All such progressions occur against a tamboura drone and a complex ostinati backdrop assembled from tablas and drums. 

The piece lunges from the gate in full flight and stokes an ecstatic frenzy throughout. With the solo roles repeatedly switching from clarinet to piano to trumpet, Ocean Avenue plays somewhat like a modern-day version of the late-night cutting contests young firebrands engaged in on NYC jazz club stages during the ‘50s; it could also be likened to a dance battle that sees participants stepping up and attempting to outdo one another in respective turns. Regardless, the music swings relentlessly, with the three voices surfing an endless percussive wave. Though the piece generally broils at a consistent level from start to finish, a discernible increase in energy occurs in its final quarter, with the trumpet doubling and tripling up to declaim more emphatically and the intensity bolstered as a result.

Named after a street high in the winding hills above Los Angeles, Encanto Drive takes a dramatic turn away from the breathless title track: arranged for shahnai, piano, trumpet, kane, santoor, voices, erhu, drums, cymbals, and tamboura, the release's second work plays like a somber march for the dead, the notion strengthened by the presence of vocal intonations and the work's lugubrious tempo. Such a slower pace can lull the listener into a semi-somnambulant state, though one not so extreme that salient details about the work escape notice. One of the more noticeable of these involves the alternation between two fifteen-beat drum patterns, one executed using brushes and the other a conventional kit. Similar to Ocean AvenueEncanto Drive features a tamboura drone and is also structured into three sections; in contrast to the title work, the second presents different instrument combinations in the three sections, shahnai and santoor in the first, piano and voices in the second, and trumpet, kane, and erhu in the third. Enhancing the structural design, in each section a melodic phrase is voiced twice by the different instruments, the second time an octave higher. Individuating details aside, the fundamental points of contrast for the two works have to do with tempo and tone, the uplifting joy of the opening setting light years removed from the funereal pitch of the other. 

It's always tantalizing to ponder what Robinson has up his sleeve; in all probability the moment Ocean Avenue was issued, the California-based composer was already well underway in conceiving a new set of compositions that'll no doubt form a fascinating study in contrast to the material featured on this latest recording. With the new year still young, one expects that that future release should appear before 2020 arrives.

February 2019

textura is a Canadian music publication