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Jason Robinson: The New Western

By Published: October 25, 2010
That got me hooked on playing in certain contexts in reggae. So, in San Francisco, I started playing with Elijah —a stage name. It has biblical references. He had a group called Elijah Emanuel and The Revelations. Through that we became connected with certain people involved in the international reggae scene. It was essentially Elijah's horn section that was asked to record with Toots. Toots is amazing. He's the world's most energetic grandfather.

AAJ: Was it hard to adapt to the reggae, or did you find you could just do your thing and cut loose?

JR: There are definitely a certain kind of rhythmic parameters in any groove based music. Rhythmic relationships are these grids. And depending what type of music you're playing, dance reggae or even roots reggae, it can be very nuanced. There's a tour I did with Groundation, with drummer Horesmouth Wallace. He came into the band for this one tour, and he introduced us to this whole vocabulary of the different nuances of grooves. There's rockers, there's steppers—all these different types of grooves. For me it was very fulfilling to learn this stuff and make it work in the jazz sense.

So I was coming from that perspective, of "How do you create these other soundscapes?" And I still do that when I play reggae. Sure, I'm approaching it with the sensibility of someone who has thought about harmony and melody and improvisation from a jazz perspective. But every context is unique. I'm just trying to make a new statement in different contexts.

AAJ: You walk a tightrope between your music and your scholarship. Is it hard to stay creative?

JR: I look at the academic work that I do, and the writing and publishing and theorizing as just another dimension of my creative work. In other words I tend to not really draw the distinction between playing and theorizing. This identity of the artist/scholar is becoming more prevalent—Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
, and I studied with George Lewis
George Lewis
George Lewis
, the trombonist. There are other types, too, like Horace Tapscott. He wasn't necessarily doing scholarship, but he was doing community activism which was totally interrelated to his music making. So there are these other kinds of models of what it means to be a musician out there that might go beyond just playing the music. It was sort of a natural thing for me.

When I was an undergraduate at Sonoma State University I ended up becoming a philosophy double major. The reason why I was drawn to that was I was able to look at certain music questions in a different way. I couldn't pose those questions in a music department, because they were too esoteric—or just outside of what the curriculum was. Does it make sense to discuss the aesthetics of improvisation drawing on Heidegger, or Wittgenstein—when you're in a jazz improvisation class? They're just like different worlds. And I'd like to see those two worlds a little more intertwined. And I think they are. Coltane's fascination with religion is just one way in which music making and theorizing and thinking are intertwined. There's been this false dichotomy created that says, if you're a performer, a musician, you can't do the theorizing. Or if you do the theorizing you're not a legitimate musician. Time management is a tricky thing but I find my life is most fulfilling when I'm able to do both at the same time—working on new ideas, new kinds of scholarship while I'm working on new musical ideas...On a philosophical level improvisation is one mode in which I create who I am—and recreate and revise and signify. So it's all interrelated.

AAJ: How about theory on a technical level—things like chord structure?

JR: Absolutely. There are always certain technical questions that are fueling musical exploration for me, new kinds of composing, new kinds of improvising. But at the same time there tends to be these philosophic questions as well. But they work together. On most of my projects, I'm thinking on those two levels.

AAJ: You have different narratives. Fred Frith
Fred Frith
Fred Frith
said that every time a musician improvises, they recapitulate their whole life up to that point. There's also the narrative of the history of the music, in addition resolving technical theory. How do you negotiate among all these narratives?

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