Jazz seems to avoid technology as other musics embrace it. While overdubs and electronics have been a rock staple for decades, they come to jazz slowly, and often criticized when they do appear. Doug Robinson uses these tools well, and has done so a long time. It has enabled him to make some recordings virtually alone, which doubtless bothers some purists. “But isn’t jazz about interplay?” Indeed it is, and Robinson knows that. On this album he works with three groups, adding pianos and synthesizers to a variety of settings. It’s an album he’s wanted to do for a long time, and you can tell as you listen.
“L.A. Romp” is a nice opener, beginning with deep fuzzy synthesizers, a line paralleled by Dave Carpenter’s funky bass. Robinson then states the theme on piano, a short cheerful thing you could hear on a TV show. The theme is picked up by Hollis Gentry’s sax, and he duels with the synthesizer, now sounding like horns. The synth lines are well drawn, with the “horns” standing out sharp over the throbbing bass part. Gentry sounds fresh and gutsy, his attack contrasting nicely with the laid-back groove. Carpenter gets some good licks in a round of fours, and Gentry percolates to an abrupt stop.
The next track takes us to New York, and a session with Mike Stern on guitar. “A Minor “ opens with moody introspection from Robinson, leading to a cheery theme from soprano George Young. He is smooth and sweet on the theme, then gets fluttery on his solo, a little like Kenny G but with a lot more feeling. Robinson sticks to piano here, getting in a little funk here and there but mostly sounding compact and classical. It’s a nice change from the great washes of sound on the opener. This is Young’s number, and he does well with it.
Robinson stays on piano for “NY Blues”, showing a few Bill Evans touches before starting the theme Stern finishes. (The theme uses bits of “L.A. Romp”; Robinson says he already has a copyright suit against himself!) In keeping with the Evans mood, John Patiucci brings us a virtuoso bass solo, very reminiscent of Scott LaFaro. Stern’s solo is fascinating: through smeared notes and other effects, his guitar sounds like a synthesizer, which keeps the sound full as Robinson stays on piano.
Thick chords and warm cymbals ring in “Sweet Themis”, another track from the L.A. session. Gentry comes in mournful, with a pure tone that later develops a pleasing grit. As in “L.A. Romp”, there’s a nice moment when Gentry blows fast while the tempo stays slow. This prods Robinson, and he plays intensely, getting moody again when he solos. It’s neat to hear the two horns and how Robinson reacts to each in a different way. Plays well with others? I’d say.
“Yokhol Hero” gives us Stern and Robinson (on lots of keyboards) with a pretty theme repeated with great effect at the end. Stern’s solo is liquid and smooth, and Robinson rides out the theme for all it’s worth. A fine moment.
“Corazon” opens a succession of small group efforts; this is a trio from the L.A. session. Like many of the tracks, it opens with meditation and gets more aggressive as the song unrolls. Nice drumwork by Scott Amendola highlights this one. “Miles Behind” is a one-man band: Rob Mounsey on synthesizer, Robinson on everything else. He starts into a pretty guitar figure, snapping the strings in a nice single-string line. Mounsey’s synth part makes like a harmonica, and the bluesy feeling makes it stand out. “Seven Up” is a trio number to which Doug added a second part, on vibes. The vibes chord nicely behind the piano, and they do the theme in unison. It’s over like that, as is “For Frank”, a solo piano piece with lush chords and some of that Bill Evans feeling.
With “Marry Me” we return to the groups, this one in New York. Young on alto rings smooth over fluttering synths. Stern’s guitar chimes with tasty echo and notes that last forever. This is more a group piece than was “A Minor”, and everyone contributes. “Sambarimba” has a winning fade-in, busy tenor from Gentry, and a force which keeps building. It’s two minutes long, but I wouldn’t mind hearing more of it – say an hour or so.
The closer, “Man With the Horn”, is something special, the last recording of Frank Rehak. Robinson met him while working at Synanon and wrote this song for him; Frank did the trombone parts in 1986 and the rest was added later. Thanks to overdubs, this sounds very full for a quartet, and the lyrics, while a little simple, are a charming tribute to this great musician.
This is a very nice album, which should feel at home on jazz radio. It manages to sound “contemporary” without the sterile sound found on some smooth jazz. It boasts big names, some underheard players, and one legend. If this sound is for you, so is this album.