Monday, December 28, 2009

Perry Robinson and Burton Greene Explore Jewish Roots

Clarinetist Perry Robinson and pianist Burton Greene came up as some of the most important "new thing" jazzmen of the sixties. They played together on a number of projects, but never as a duet. Until now, and their very lucid Two Voices in the Desert (Tzadik). This is an installment in Tzadik's provocative series of recordings that re-establishes Jewish music as a living, breathing contemporary art that, like Klezmer before it, opens a window onto a horizon of musical innovation, that brings old, even ancient tonalities into the vocabulary and syntax of today's sounds--modern jazz, rock, avant garde and you-name-it styles of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Like Steve Lacy did for the soprano sax at the time, Perry Robinson took the clarinet, an instrument that had become somewhat moribund and passe in the most modern of jazz endeavors, and remade the instrument into a thing rife with a personal sound and note choice. Perry's, that is. It established him at the forefront of the new free scene and made the clarinet an instrument to be taken seriously once again. Similarly the functioning of Ornette Coleman's classic two horn, bass and drums lineup and other developments made the pianoforte less desirable in the most advanced circles of improvisatory music. Its function to lay down the harmonic foundations of changes-based improvising, as a kind of musical traffic cop, was a hindrance to players who sought to follow the freed up melodic-harmonic contours of their muse. Burton Greene along with of course Cecil Taylor and a handful of other pianists redefined the pianists' role in terms of an exploration of percussive, coloristic and post-changes capabilities, to rejoin the front line as a soloist that did not need to hammer down the structure of the music as it was defined.

Years later, Perry and Burton have not so much mellowed as they have embraced and incorporated into their music what was part of their early informal ear training, something we all get without necessarily consciously seeking it out, the sound and content of the music around them that was imbibed like the air they breathed, from the cradle on. That doesn't mean that they are about to break into 28 choruses of "I'll Remember April," but it does mean that they can now come to grips with that which helped define them musically. In the case of this CD, the Jewish heritage that was so much a part of the New York aural world.

So we have a CD filled with music composed by Burton Greene, John Zorn and others, that takes a musical imprint of how those roots work for today. So Perry's clarinet shows some Klezmer-like inflections here, not surprisingly, but this series of duets subtly transforms and reworks the tradition to something that bears the personal stamp of these highly individual stylists.

The artistic fruition is most fortuitous--not in some accidental sense, but in the sense of fortunate, auspiciously impacted artistry. This is from first to last captivating music. Masterful music. And a true pleasure to hear. Anyone who thinks they know what these two artists are likely to sound like in some predictable sense would do best to hear Two Voices in the Desert. It will probably defy your expectations as well as redefine your sense of the reach and grasp of what Perry and Burton can and have accomplished. For this is an extraordinary accomplishment.

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