Jason Robinson, tenor saxophone
Eric Hofbauer, guitar
“It’s about making a joyous sound and sharing that joy with other people.”
It’s summer 2019. A warm day in July. I’m on Canada’s west coast in Vancouver, British Columbia speaking on the phone with Jason Robinson. Jason is on the east coast of the U.S. in Amherst, Massachusetts, but the continent-wide distance between us dissolves quickly as we talk about our friend and collaborator, Ken Aldcroft—his life, his music, his family and friends, his legacy.
We talk about Jason’s work with our friend Eric Hofbauer to document a book of compositions for tenor saxophone and guitar that Ken had written more than a decade earlier. We talk about more friends, Emily Denison and Daniel Kruger, and the tour we all made together in celebration of Ken and his music in March 2018. We talk about older tours, Jason with Ken working on the duo music and getting to know one another in 2015. We talk about my memories of playing and travelling and teaching with Ken over the course of our long friendship.
We talk about a lot of things. In the end, though, so much of what we share really comes down to, as Jason says, “making a joyous sound and sharing that joy with other people.”
The last time Jason and I spoke on the phone at length in this way was on another warm summer day three years earlier, about nine months after we lost Ken to a surprise heart attack on September 17, 2016. The two had planned on touring and recording together later that year and now, nine months on, Jason was interested in seeing the project through. As a duo partner, he had chosen Eric Hofbauer, “An amazing person who is also one of the most amazing guitarists I’ve ever played with.”
On the phone that first time, Jason and I decided that we would do a tour together that would look something like what he and Ken would have done. Soon after, I got in touch with Emily Denison and Daniel Kruger about forming a trio that would share a series of concerts with Jason and Eric in early March 2018. The five of us ended up meeting in Montréal and continuing on through Ottawa, Hamilton, Waterloo, Kingston, Guelph, and Toronto with help from many of the small-scale, non-profit presenters and venues who help to ensure the survival of creative music in the area: Café Résonance, Improvising & Experimental Music of Ottawa and Outwards (IMOO), Zula Presents, Admission of Guilt, Tone Deaf, Silence, the Tranzac, and Somewhere There.
Jason spoke later about his choice of partner for this project and the challenge he knew he was presenting Eric with:
When Ken passed and some time went by, I was thinking about how I could conclude the project that we had started and I was thinking about different guitarists. I knew that it would take a very specific kind of player who could do it technically but who would also bring the right kind of spirit to it. I felt like Eric and I had started to develop a kind of deeper, human, spiritual connection, so I reached out to him. I don’t know if he immediately understood the emotional significance to me, but he was right there very quickly. It’s an odd thing to ask someone to finish something up for someone who’s passed away. If someone asked me to do that, I don’t know how I’d respond. It’s a big ask.
Eric was unaware of that pressure in the beginning. “I wasn't thinking about the tour from that perspective,” he explains, “I just wanted to get the music right.” Once the tour began, though, “there was this whole other layer of life and death and family and loss and all this other deep emotional stuff about celebration and honouring someone.” The “big ask” was not only to essentially take Aldcroft’s place in his own duo, but also to develop an approach to his music on tour alongside people who were very close to him and, it turned out, to play many of those concerts with Ken’s wife, Maria, and their son, Liam, in the audience.
It is a testament to his remarkable artistry that Eric not only rose to the challenge but saw past it in an important way. He was determined to “honour this music and honour Ken in a way that was respectful of his spirit and attitude and to the truth in the music.” He realised quickly that this was music that “wasn’t adhering to any stylistic rules, wasn’t locked into a certain genre or a certain set of academic parameters,” but was, instead, “purely about personality.” Playing this music, then, is “not about copying the original but celebrating that belief in personality and originality by finding a way to make it your own.” “I felt like my own relationship with Ken and his music became this journey to find my own sound in it,” he explained, “And the music allowed me to do that, to not get in my head and think about what everyone else thought about what I was doing. I knew that if I could get past that, I could play this music with the kind of authenticity that it deserves.”
Jason, of course, had begun his journey with Aldcroft and with this music much earlier. He and Ken first met and made music together in Toronto in September 2005 at Leftover Daylight, a regular series of creative music concerts that Ken and I had begun presenting two years before. Jason played with trombonist Michael Dessen, bassist Scott Walton, and percussionist Nathan Hubbard that night as Cosmologic. Their set was followed by a series of ad hoc ensembles that mixed and matched the visitors with a quintet of Toronto improvisers: violinist Parmela Attariwala, sound singer Paul Dutton, and cellist Nick Storring, along with Michael Keith and Ken Aldcroft on guitars.
Jason and Ken began an e-mail correspondence afterward that would eventually lead to them meeting up a few years later once Jason had made a move to Massachusetts from his long-time home in California. In the meantime, Ken had been working on a book of compositions for tenor saxophone and guitar. He played that music with more than a few tenor players over the years, but I suspect that he knew that eventually he would be playing it with Jason Robinson. Ken was a fiercely motivated musician who made new friends easily through the music. He was perpetually dreaming up new projects and making plans about the music he would be making next week, next year, ten years on. Jason didn’t know what he was in for, but I really think that Ken knew all along.
By the time that Jason reached out to me about bringing their duo project to completion, he and Ken had done two short tours as a duo in 2015 and were planning another. The first began on July 8 right in the heart of Toronto’s creative music scene at the Tranzac Club. It continued with shows at Silence in Guelph on the 9th with guitarist Ian Bain and friends and then at Raw Sugar in Ottawa on the 10th with saxophonist Linsey Wellman. Continuing east to Montréal, they played at Café Résonance on the 11th with John Heward, Yves Charuest, and Eric Lewis, and at La Passe on the 12th with Lori Freedman and Nicolas Caloia.
In addition to “looking over at Ken whenever we’d finished a song and wondering which one of us is going to laugh first,”—an evocative memory for many of us who made music with Aldcroft over the years—Robinson recalls the intensity of being on tour together, reminiscing on “that kind of odd, quick intimacy that happens when suddenly you are in a car together with someone for eight hours at a time over multiple days.” You have a special opportunity to build a very particular kind of relationship with someone when, as he describes it, “you’re exhausted and you’re playing gigs and having to figure out where you’re going to stay and you’re dehydrated and hungry. You go from barely knowing someone to listening in on their phone calls home.”
Jason speaks at length about their relationship, the conditions of its formation, and its significance in his life. And he touches on an important truth; which is that, where aesthetic concerns and musical interests are so often what brings us together initially, more often than not genuine friendship is what sustains these relationships and, through them, the music itself:
There’s another part of this for me which goes much deeper. We can talk about playing pieces and stuff, but Ken sold me on his humanity. Sitting in the car with him, driving around, meeting Maria, meeting Liam, working on stuff together, dealing with the most inane border politics between Canada and the U.S. and vice versa, you know. I fell in love with the guy. He was an incredible friend and a beautiful human being. I’ve reached a place in my musical life where I don’t really want to make music with people I don’t have faith in on a deep human level. And Ken sold it. I’d play music with him anytime. I don’t care what the situation is. I’d practice my guts out to try to make his super complicated musical vision happen because he really showed me the kind of person he was and I appreciated that.
The two met up again in the U.S. in November, beginning this time at Flywheel Arts in Easthampton, MA on the 5th followed by a set at AS220 in Providence, RI on the 6th. On the 7th, Jason played a set of music inspired by the work of visual artist, Amanda Barrow, at the Bing Arts Center in Springfield, MA. He was joined by Carl Clements on saxophone and flute as well as percussionist Bob Weiner. Together again on the 8th, Ken and Jason played an early evening show at the Downtown Music Gallery in Manhattan followed by a set for COMA at ABC No Rio. The tour wrapped up with an appearance at the 65Fen Music Series in Brooklyn on the 9th.
Jason’s previous commitment on the 7th, though, proved a fateful one. Ken ended up in Cambridge that night to play a solo set at Lilypad in Inman Square on a double bill with drummer Vinnie Sperazza and guitarist Eric Hofbauer.
As Eric tells it, the guitarists had discussed the possibility of playing together for “maybe ten minutes or so” at the end of the night. Instead, “we were really having fun and ended up doing almost a half hour,” he remembers. “Immediately, we both recognised that we were kindred spirits on the instrument.”
For Hofbauer, “creating an environment where you can really develop and find your own individuality is about really not limiting yourself.” Avowing that, “I was never fully dedicated to a certain style or a certain genre of music, to a type of jazz or a type of improvisation,” the self-described “sonic omnivore” heard the same openness in Aldcroft:
He was playing inside and outside. He played a couple Monk tunes and a couple tunes of his that were coming right out of the country blues and a free piece that was built around extended techniques, and he was finding ways to blend all of that together; so we were using the instrument in very similar ways. He had brought a few pedals and a few effects and had a different sonic pallet, but we had a similar philosophical approach. It was like we’d been playing together forever.
When you play with somebody new you kind of get a sense of where they’re at but then you throw things around and see where they land, test your assumptions. We were lobbing ideas at each other left and right and the other person was responding with, ‘Oh, yeah! I do that, too! That’s a good idea! Let’s go there!’ It was very natural. I just remember smiling and laughing a lot. It was so great. So easy.
Robinson is a similar kind of omnivore, of course. “I just want to play exciting, high-level, inspiring music,” he says. It is very much about dedication and inspiration for him rather than a specific style or genre and you can hear that in his own music as well as in his choice of collaborators. “My interests are not really catholic in any way, you know?” he says, continuing that,
It doesn’t have to be experimental for me to love it. It doesn’t have to be commercial for me to love it. It doesn’t have to be 4/4 or playing the blues. It just has to be really good, really inspired, you know? It has to be people who really care about what they’re doing. It’s not about the level of performance, it’s just about that commitment and trying to continue to be inspired. I believe that high-level, super committed, more experimental playing is just as fulfilling as high-level, super committed, more straight ahead playing.
Pausing first to put on his “jazz historian hat,” Hofbauer sums up this connection among all three members of the duo quite nicely,
You might describe Jason in this post-Coltrane type of landscape where the saxophone is a very powerful and impressive voice—a big sound, a wide timbral range that goes from very meaty to that tenor scream—so the jazz players here in Boston are obviously very impressed with that command, and rightly so. But there’s so much more to his playing which really comes out in the duo. Timbral control, articulation, range, not just playing the melodies but locking into these different grooves and ostinatos, playing time, interacting, creating counterpoint, all this stuff. I think that’s a big part of our connection. To go back to our theme here, he’s someone with a great deal of diversity, someone who’s coming from the jazz tradition with a strong connection to free jazz and everything, someone who’s played in these soul/ funk/ reggae bands. He brings all this history of all these different languages on the saxophone just like I’m doing and like Ken was doing. And I think that that’s why the duo works the way it does.
I regret to say that I was never able to hear Jason and Ken play together, save for that first night at Leftover Daylight back in 2005, but I will be forever thankful to have been able to sit and witness the duo of Jason and Eric working the way it does in such a concentrated way. Over the course of those ten concerts in early March 2018, not only did I have the pleasure of finding that same “odd, quick intimacy” on the road with these kind and admirable humans—very much including Emily and Daniel, with whom I got to explore and document some wonderful music on that tour—but I got to watch and listen, night-after-night, as the extraordinary friendship between Jason and Eric was enacted through the music of Ken Aldcroft, another good friend.
One can’t help but consider an overused trope and describe them as being “at the top of their game” or some such thing. In truth, though, that’s not true. Jason and Eric are as confident as they are curious. They are as inspired by the music they know as they are hungry for the new possibilities waiting for them in the music they don’t know. Both possesses a kind of mastery that has yet to take itself for granted. They share a commitment to the music that goes as deep as I have ever seen. To witness them playing together—truly playing, having such serious fun—and to share in the joyous sounds they make… perhaps Jason says it best: “There are certain moments in your musical life where it becomes incredibly glaringly evident that music is much more than just sound.”
—Joe Sorbara, xi 2019
Jason Robinson and Eric Hofbauer got together to discuss the music found here on “Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late” in mid August 2019. What follows is a lightly edited transcription of their conversation.
Jason Robinson - I thought we’d start with ‘Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late’.
For me, when we’ve played the piece, I’ve always sort of felt like if I can make it, without making any mistakes, to measure thirteen where the improvisation starts, it’s like that once in a lifetime moment when the sun goes through Stonehenge in just that perfect way and you see, illuminated, some special shape on the ground...
Eric Hofbauer - I think that’s part of the process of this composition. That’s the payoff. You work to arrive at that perfect execution. And the work it takes to get there, the times when you perform it when it’s not quite there but you find musical solutions to the problem of being off by an eighth note as the mixed meter pulls you along and all of that wild stuff. It’s pretty cool.
JR - Oh, yeah, the way the two lines kind of push and pull against each other and across the barline, like you were saying, as we go from 4/4 to 5/4 to 4/4 and so forth. It’s all pulse based—the quarter note and the eighth note always remain as the basic underlying pulse—but it’s always interesting how the two parts push and pull against each other.
EH - And there are these moments of sustain where you don’t expect sustain that make it sound like you’re resetting a downbeat. When you really start to hear how there is also a syncopated or rhythmic or phraseological counterpoint going on, there’s a great deal of surprise with the interplay of the syncopation and the sustain.
JR - One of the things I’ve found exciting about the whole book of compositions is the challenge to really establish a sound world for each piece; a kind of rhythmic sound world, a kind of harmonic sound world, a kind of there there. And what I find really challenging in the duo context like this is that it’s just you and me, and an 8th note can be played many different ways, rhythmically. And with each one of these pieces, it seems like we’re more successful in performing the piece, the more we’re thinking about really coming together and creating a defined sound world. So in this piece, ‘Two Hours Early,’ we’re really leaning in to the straight 8th note feel and staying there despite all of the entropy in my DNA to try to swing these 8th notes. The more I can play completely straight, the more it seems we’ve really arrived at the sound world of the piece.
EH - I agree. Certainly in the improvised sections we’re kind of trading off and I think we really capture that spirit of keeping it straight, refraining from the swing. We both want to, but even if a little bit of it leaks out we pull back. And then there’s also this other thing about capturing these moments of that sustain where something rings out and it sounds like time stops temporarily. I really like that. We do that a lot where it’s like we hit a pause-button and then the time hits again. That’s really what the composition is doing. I think this is what you’re really driving at. There is a sound world to the piece made up of two or three major compositional elements and we stay true to the spirit of the music by working with them even when we’re in a “free-improv” area.
JR - When we’re improvising together in that section I like the challenge that’s posed by trying to stay completely in—not just in time, but in the phrasing that’s written on the page. It’s a four-measure phrase and there are two different lines that play against each other. And sometimes we stick with it and just stay there, right? But other times—and this is what I love about playing with you, but also playing in this duo context generally—we can take a left turn and depart from the script whenever we want because we both know both parts of the piece really well. So all it takes is… it’s like a little sound-wink, or a nod, or a glance and bam: we’re back together inside the scripted rhythmic/harmonic/melodic phrasing of the composition.
EH - Absolutely. And to add to your point, I think that is a concept that we apply to the whole album. When I listen back to it that’s the thing that, as a listener, really excites me about our musical relationship, that ability to leap off the page and take all these left turns and then, like you said, that musical wink comes along and all of a sudden we’re back in it like it was an arrangement, like, “How did they do that?” There’s a similar downbeat in ‘Jones’ Place’. That’s part of what I love about these compositions and about playing them specifically with you. We tapped into that really effectively, I think.
JR - By the time we made this recording we had played a number of live concerts with our Canadian colleagues and I guess the cliff-notes thing to say is that the music was really road-tested by the time we recorded it but there’s something deeper that was happening. We found a kind of playfulness with the music and a confidence—in ourselves and in one another—to be able to be flexible with what’s on the page.
I’d say that one of my favourite parts of this piece, if not my favourite part, happens right at the end. It’s the harmony that we end on but it happens a few times before that, as well. We hold on to this note that we approach by three 8th note triplets and we end up one half step apart. We’re in perfect unison for the first two and then this beautiful dissonance occurs, the dissonance of the minor second. And in that range you can actually hear the beating of it, the beating of the two pitches rubbing against one another. But what’s so interesting is that we’re totally unison and then: bam! In some odd way that’s a metaphor for the project.
EH - I agree. Well put. In the smallest musical space, you can condense the whole mission statement.
JR - So, this collection of pieces that Ken wrote is really intriguing because there are three different sound worlds that he explored. One is the stuff that was happening in ‘Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late’—and that comes back in a few other pieces that we’ll talk about in a moment. Then there are the two pieces that are almost like standards: the Thelonious Monk-inspired ‘Sphere’ and ‘Parkdale Serenade’. And then there’s this piece, ‘A Lonely Dance,’ and there are a couple other pieces that I would put in this category, too, where it’s really about exploring a pretty static sound world.
Playing this piece live, I always found that it contrasts the other material so beautifully. You couldn’t do an entire set of pieces like ‘A Lonely Dance’—especially as a duo—without it feeling a bit like too much of the same thing. But wow, in the context of all the other pieces this is like an odd breath of fresh air. It has a lot of vibe to it—it’s not super happy or something like that—but...
EH - It’s got this minor modality. Again, an odd-meter ostinato with a melody that lines up and then doesn’t line up and there’s this kind of phrase collision that really adds to the mystery. I totally agree in terms of its programmatic/ elemental placement. It’s perfect for the duo.
Any of these spaces that Ken was composing in, you could easily overdo them. If we had done a set of tunes that were tunes—forms and time, changes—that would have been too much. Too many of the ostinato-based groove pieces like ‘Just East’ or ‘Jones’ Place,’ that would have been too much, you know? Too many of the textural things like Study In that are open-ended and free, that would have been too much with just two voices, even though we’re really exploring all the extremes of timbre and technique, everything that we’re doing. But it works because we have a balance. And then we can do all those things and when we get to this moment of ‘A Lonely Dance,’ it’s like, “Oh yeah, and you could do that on these instruments.” It’s this kind of slinky ballad moment and it’s just five minutes long. And it’s a thing. In the larger context of the whole narrative of the set, it’s a perfect contrast.
JR - Internally, the piece is about real subtle variations, right? That bass line just kind of keeps going and there’s a little hint of a harmonic form—just a hint—and the melody just has these slight variations and then suddenly there are these breaks that occur. They’re not the over-blown, sort of, be-bop breaks. They emerge organically and before you know it your guitar has stopped and I’m playing a couple measures by myself and it doesn’t feel forced in any way. It’s beautiful.
I’ve always liked the key of this piece and the way it sits on the tenor saxophone. If I want to play the bass line, the way it sits on the lower range of the horn just brings out this really beautiful colour in the subtone. It’s really warm when I play it that way, super warm and lush. So it has this nice other side to it if we switch roles and I’ve always like that.
EH - On the guitar, too. It’s not the expected, open-string, low, minor thing. The go-to would be A minor over D minor, so to be in B minor where there aren’t that many open strings—the only open string I was using was the open D string to get that minor 3rd—that changes it, too. It’s less the expected, almost-cliché, melancholic minor guitar ballad thing.
JR - Let’s talk about ‘Cat & Mouse’.
EH - This is a two-for-one. Ken is exploring, again, this combination of the ostinato with the odd, shifting phrases and changing meter and a groove that has a lot of momentum. But then it also has these totally free things and you play off of those and juxtapose them and move in and out and back and forth. That really plays to our strengths, playing dialogue, dropping in and out of the familiar and unfamiliar.
JR - In many ways I kind of see this as a game-piece between you and I. Especially in the opening section where there are those three different ostinatos that each have a different time signature. They each have the same pitch content in the guitar part but they change subtly and it makes all the difference.
EH - It was very satisfying for me to thread my business card between the strings for the first big chunk of the tune. It adds to this idea, this spirit of a game-piece. It brings a kind of playfulness. It changes the tonality. It changes the timbre of the attack.
JR - How exactly do you place that business card in the guitar strings? Is it sort of like over under over under?
EH - It’s over-under, yeah. And it’s kind of slid down toward the bridge. It’s really tight in there so I can play really hard and rhythmic and it’s not going to slide out.
JR - That’s to the right of your right hand?
EH - Yeah, and that’s what gives it that weird, jangley, slightly-microtonal, banjo/guitar timbre.
JR - You know, there are two preparations that you do that I’m always intrigued by. One is this business card thing. The other one is when you use the Altoids box as a slide. Both of them really get me each time you do them. But the business card one, my ear immediately heard it as referencing a kalimba or an mbira, the thumb piano traditions of Southern Africa. Is that where you got the idea from or did it come from somewhere else?
EH - That’s it. Just really trying to highlight the percussive roots of the instrument. It does have that thumb piano sound, especially when played with some type of pattern. It really lends itself quite well to that.
JR - The other really interesting thing about the form of ‘Cat & Mouse’ is the second page, which is this big, long, extended written section that ends with three beats of rest. And those three beats of rest are always silence, right? Everything fits together in this highly calibrated way and then suddenly there’s this silence. And then: bam! We’re back into it. I’ve always loved the challenge of not only playing all the notes correctly there, but also harnessing the energy so that it really builds to the end of that written part for the long rest. How did you think about that section?
EH - Yeah, I mean that’s the surprise resolution. That’s the most dramatic moment. We’re playing all this very intricate counterpoint and it’s very intense and full of twists and turns and surprises, unison attacks and then off in all directions, so when that ending comes it’s almost like catching your breath for a moment and then diving back in. I always hear it as programmatic: the chase of cat and mouse, or like when you’re a kid and you’re playing tag and you’re running around and you get a quick break before you jump back into the game.
JR - There were three pieces that, as I think of them now, form a sort of category. And they have to do with the blues. The three pieces are ‘Jones’ Place’, ‘Work Song’, and ‘First, Not Last’. They’re sort of three different takes on the blues. ‘Work Song’ is the one where you use the Altoid box as a slide. You do an improvisation at the beginning of the piece and then get into a groove and then we play this melody, this sort of classic, AAB blues theme. Over the years, what I found so fascinating about this piece is that it reveals something about Ken’s approach to playing jazz and blues more broadly. This particular piece, ‘Work Song,’ really makes me think of people like Robert Johnson and Son House and Charlie Patton and your use of the Altoid Box as the slide totally shines a light on those historical connections for me. Why did you go to the slide on this?
EH - For the same reason, I guess. Playing through it, it seemed to have that kind of clear language of the blues without the prescribed form; or at least it had the malleable potential to go there. One could interpret that composition and say, “Great, we’re going to play the melody and then we’re going to go right to a blues form.” You and I don’t really do that. There might be some chords and maybe someone could count and say, “Hey, that was twelve bars,” but most of the time I know I’m not thinking of the form. I think we’re just hearing harmonic spaces and moving around by feel, by ear. And just doing that made me think of some of my favourite recordings that aren’t following a form but following the melodic structure of the theme. In Son House and Robert Johnson you might add a beat or two and it’s not about strict, four-bar phrases.
JR - When performed solo, anything can happen because you don’t need to coordinate with someone else. And that’s the wonderful thing about playing duo in this context. As we get used to each others’ aesthetic compasses, we started to make those same kinds of flexible decisions on the fly. We’re hearing each other and following each other. It’s like an extended version of playing solo in many ways.
EH - That’s always a goal to aspire to, I think, in duo playing. And maybe even, if you can get there, it’s more rarified in trio. But to take the spirit of playing solo and the freedom of playing these distilled things and going in these directions. Because it’s all rooted in the blues and you and I have our own long personal histories with blues and bop and that kind of jazz language and we’re ready to take it and run with it. I think that’s why all three of these pieces work so well, because we bring those affinities to uncover what I think Ken was going after with his presentations of what the blues is as a language rather than as a structure or a set of rules.
JR - Shifting to ‘Jones’ Place,’ one of the things that I find so fascinating about it is that it has this one-measure ostinato that’s very blues oriented, but then that gets juxtaposed against something that I would consider more like new music or something, you know? These really intricate 16th note lines and different tuplets, fives and sixes, all done in this unison fashion where it’s like we bust out of the blues and end up on this other side of things. You’re treated to the connection between the blues and this much more abstract version of the blues which is chromatic and it’s like the whole cosmos is there in a certain sense.
EH - And yet, when you tap into what he’s doing harmonically, it’s still not that far at all—pitch-wise, melodically—from the good ol’ blues scale.
JR - No, not at all.
EH - But, like you said, there’s this tight unison and these odd tuplets and little hints of mixed meter. I remember rehearsing this, working on breathing together to get that phrasing with the right kind of elasticity. Because it’s not necessarily locked into the groove of where it came from. It just has this different type of subtle breath that you might get from a New Music piece or a chamber piece, some type of Bartók thing, or…
JR - It’s more gestural than it is metronomic.
EH - Yes. That’s what I was looking for.
JR - Of this trio of blues pieces... Man, I’d love to hear Eddie Harris play ‘First Not Last’. To me, that piece is that kind of blues, that other sort of Chicago, slow-burn, jazz-oriented blues. Not the electric blues of Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. It’s more like the way Eddie Harris played the blues, or Les McCann, where there’s this sustained intensity. It’s not climactic, but sustained for a long time. The melody of ‘First, Not Last’ is certainly that.
EH - Would you call that “soul jazz”?
JR - Yeah, to a certain extent. But a particular type. I remember studying Eddie Harris’ music when I was in college and it’s sort of like it’s own chapter. The way Cannonball Adderley and others played that kind of bluesy, groove-oriented material, it always had these calculated climaxes. The accompaniment for the solos was always teleological, pointing toward this goal, this overflowing of some sort of emotional content at some point. Whereas, if you listen to Eddie Harris’ solo on ‘Compared to What?’ or even the way he played ‘Freedom Jazz Dance,’ it just sort of stays at this kind of 70% intensity. Forever.
EH - It simmers there.
JR - Yeah. For Ever. Where the Cannonball version of soul jazz was like 30% intensity and then 100% every now and then, these little peaks, right? But, oh man, Eddie Harris’ music was always just… I don’t know how to describe it. It was unforgiving in its intensity. It just didn’t go away. And this piece, ‘First, Not Last,’ from the first time I played it I immediately heard that and I’m still exploring the potential for that in the piece. I know that in my approach to improvising over it that’s where I’ve been coming from every time, trying to maintain this intensity, see if I can keep it there.
And also, one of the really interesting challenges of this piece was the way we approached getting out of the solos or cueing written material in the middle of a solo. I think the challenge for that was to make them sound very natural, both rhythmically and in terms of the phrasing. Even though we were kind of pulling them out of thin air in terms of where the beat was.
EH - This is another one in the bigger, overarching theme of an immersive sound world and a specific vocabulary. To make this piece work from top to bottom you have to adhere to it; which fits perfectly with that Eddie Harris, slow, steady, simmer-boil type of thing because you never really want to leave the groove. My point of reference was always ‘Freedom Jazz Dance,’ so I wanted to add some harmony or some subtle bits but didn’t want to do the usual build of, like, now I’m playing a bass line and now I’m getting a little more rhythmically sophisticated, now I’ll add some harmony, now it’s thicker harmony, now I stay here and that’s the end of Jason’s solo. Instead it’s like, here are some chords that will interact, but I’m going to pull it back. I don’t want to give away too much. I don’t want to be suddenly stuck with just one texture. That’s what makes this tune super challenging and satisfying as a harmonic accompanist because you really have to balance.
There’s so much to work with. You can work from the written material and from what the soloist is providing. And then we’re trading roles, we’re each improvising in an accompanist’s role and then in a soloist’s role. Those terms start to melt away on this tune because we’re dancing in and out between the line and variations of the line and jumping off to something else and coming back...
JR - In many ways, for me, it’s always felt like clarity is the goal. In other words, if I’m going to shift from soloist mode where you’re accompanying me to accompanying mode where you’re soloing, my goal has always been, first and foremost, to have there be clarity in my approach so that you can hear what I’m doing and we can create definite relationships between our parts. But also for audiences to hear that, right? For audiences to hear the relationship between what I’m doing and what you’re doing as clearly as possible.
EH - Yes. That’s why I think it’s so successful, because of our deep listening, our comfortability with each other’s playing, our trust and confidence in one another. Even when I listened back today just to refresh for this conversation I could hear, “Oh, Jason just played one note or one rhythm and that was the switch from accompaniment to solo and here we go.”
JR - As we gain more familiarity with the composed material in each piece and as we continue to develop trust in one another, it opens up into really wonderfully rewarding risk-taking. And that’s what I’m most interested in doing, musically, is taking risks with people on stage in front of audiences, you know, and seeing what we discover. One of the things I love so much about this material is that it pushes us in so many different directions. The music that really interests me as a performer and composer isn’t about one style, isn’t about one historical trajectory. So much has happened and I’m really turned on by a lot of different musical approaches.
So, to group some other pieces together, we have the chromaticism and interesting challenges of things like ‘Just East’ and ‘Two Hours Early,’ but then we also have ‘Parkdale Serenade’ and ‘Sphere’. Those are straight-up standards and I love the challenge of playing in that tradition and seeing what happens as if we were Sonny Rollins and Joe Pass or Jim Hall. And then, at the same time we have a piece like ‘Study In,’ which in my mind is as defined of an area—a very different area—but it’s as defined an area as those two standard-like tunes are. ‘Study In’ is a kind of combined new music and open improvisation space. It’s very defined that way. It’s super clear. Tell me a little bit about what the guitar part is like on Study In.
EH - It’s impossible. (laughs)
You know, it lives up to its title. To play that guitar part—and I’m sure you have something equally poignant to say about the tenor part—but to play the guitar part you have to puzzle it out. The way the guitar fretboard is layed out, there are often from two, up to maybe ten solutions for playing anything. Even the hardest bebop tune, even playing ‘Donna Lee,’ you can finger it on the fretboard three or four different ways and for every phrase you can go in a different direction, start in a different place and make it work. After listening to the live recording that you shared of you and Ken playing ‘Study In’ and really studying the score, I could analyse Ken’s playing and realise that there is really only one possible way to play this piece; which, again, totally aligns with this idea of a New Music piece with this challenging combination of precise, virtuosic passages that teeter between more traditional classical guitar elements mixed with extended techniques mixed with free improvisation. It takes a different type of discipline than playing ‘Sphere’ or ‘Parkdale’ or something.
But, long story short, that’s what I love about that piece. It’s the work that I had to put in to pull it off that made it so satisfying. It was like I was having a conversation with Ken about it. “Ah! That’s the only possible way you can play this harmonic,” I would say. It was like reading a treasure map and discovering that there’s only one way to get to the golden monkey.
JR - There is a study-like nature to the piece. There are these specific problems that seem posed in the guitar part. It’s almost like you took a lesson from a colleague. There was Ken saying, “Hey! Check this out!”
EH - Yes.
JR - Let’s skip forward to another piece, a completely different approach. If ‘Study In’ is one that is so hyper-specific, on the opposite end of the spectrum is ‘Reminiscent’.
EH - Yes.
JR - This piece, ‘Reminiscent,’ in many ways it’s one of my favourite pieces in the repertoire that we developed. It’s a series of these descending phrases. It’s written in 11/8 time. There was a period in developing the material with Ken where we really tried to play it exactly in 11/8, but it quickly turned into this gestural sort of thing. But the way that you and I developed it over time, it starts with an unaccompanied sax solo that gets into a kind of harmonic territory through some extended techniques—some over-tone series stuff, a couple of other things. And one of the things I love about the way we play it is that it contrasts the cyclical nature of the form of many of the other pieces in the book. We often play the written material, then improvise in one way or another, then play the written material again to end. With ‘Reminiscent,’ it’s about this extended saxophone improvisation and when we eventually get to the melody, we repeat it many times but then the piece just ends. I love the contrasting form of it compared to the other pieces.
EH - Like ‘Study In’ or ‘A Lonely Dance,’ here are these three unique moments across the repertoire that really highlight what a tenor and guitar duo can do.
Because you don’t expect it, either. You’re playing these overtones and building, there’s a rising and falling of dynamics, there’s a swirling nature to the line that you’re playing, this descending line, and no one expects these simple octaves to arrive as the main melody from the guitar. And then it’s over. That has a certain intensity, too, a certain type of surprising intensity. Different than ‘Jones’ Place’ or the blues pieces we were talking about, but very satisfying nevertheless, I think.
JR - So, we mentioned it when we were talking about ‘Two Hours Early,’ but we need to talk about ‘Just East’. In many ways Just East is kind of a counterpart, aesthetically, to ‘Two Hours Early’. But it’s harder.
EH - Yes! Those are both true statements.
JR - I remember rehearsing together, just practicing it over and over trying to get it so we could end perfectly together, which basically means we’ve stayed in the right place relative to one another the entire way. And it’s such an interesting, compelling, contrapuntal pair of lines played together. Those times when we did nail the composed parts it was just super fulfilling.
EH - I’ve always wondered which came first in this piece. Was it the top line and then the bottom line? Did he come up with the bottom line all at once? Or was he kind of composing them together in chunks, phrase by phrase? If you really analyse it, it’s really such a wonderful puzzle, how it all fits together in such fascinating and satisfying ways. He built in all these little spots where we breathe together even though we’re in totally separate spaces. You’re moving when I’m not moving and then I’m moving when you’re not moving and then we move together and then we align at the ends of phrases. I wish I could have asked him about the process of composing this because there are moments where it’s like: “That doesn’t go together at all,” and then you hear it and it’s, “Wow. Okay. It does.”
JR - I’ll say this, the way that you and I obsessed over trying to get it right, maybe to the detriment of talking more philosophically about the overall shape of the piece? Ken and I did the exact same thing. I don’t think we ever talked philosophy on the piece. It was just the same thing, like, “Goddamnit, I want to play this right!” and being off by one note.
One of the things that I love about it, besides the ending being really tight and coming together, are these really interesting emergent unisons in the middle of the written material where it’s either rhythmic unison—it’s been contrapuntal and then suddenly there’s this rhythmic unison—and in a couple spots there are these octaves, so it’s rhythmic and pitch unison, too, that pop out. It felt like you and I would use those as…
EH - Check-ins.
JR - Yes. I loved those moments where we’d get it totally right and you’d want to exclaim it after you finish.
EH - There’s one thing I do want to say about ‘Just East’. You know, it’s predominantly in 5. There’s a two-bar breath where we do play together, there’s a nice little major harmony sort of arrival point near the end. But in my part it’s so quarter-note heavy that you have this kind of poly-pulse thing. I’m not on the one. Ever. You are with the main line, the 8th note driven line. That interplay is on a whole other level.
Because it’s one thing to play it together correctly, to listen as a musician playing a part. But then to listen back to it as a listener, you really get a sense of how everything meshes and the play of the poly pulse. It’s really quite satisfying. I get a different type of satisfaction when we perform it, I’m listening for different things, these things lining up and so on. But when you hear the quarter note pulse as a slower 4/4—but with this little hitch in it so that it’s not quite 4/4—against the tenor line that has a 5 thing going on, you realise what a deep composition this is, how playful it is.
JR - And playing it, what I came to understand was that you have to have faith in the landing points. And that could be something like emphasising the one, or it could be those rhythmic unisons between our parts, but the more faith and confidence I had in those points, the more I was able to play with the middles of the phrases, the parts that were leading up to those landing points. That’s when the piece really started to open up for me and I found new levels of expression with it.
All songs composed by Ken Aldcroft (Kenneth Grant Aldcroft/SOCAN)
All proceeds from this project go to Maria and Liam Aldcroft
Recorded on March 5, 2018, at Union Sound Company, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Mixed and mastered at Rotary Records, West Springfield, Massachusetts, USA
Recording engineers: John Sorenson and Leon Taheny
Mixing and mastering engineer: Warren Amerman
Photography by Arden Wray
Graphic design by Kio Griffith
Liner notes by Joe Sorbara
Produced by Jason Robinson and Eric Hofbauer
Our sincerest thanks to Maria Aldcroft, John Sorenson, Joe Sorbara, Emily Denison, Daniel Kruger, Marcos Fernandes, and our families.
Jason Robinson is an American saxophonist, flutist, and composer. He releases three new albums in summer and fall 2020,
including Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late: Duo Music of Ken Aldcroft, with Eric Hofbauer (Accretions), The Urgency of Now, with Bruno Råberg and Bob Weiner (Creative Nation Music), and Harmonic Constituent, with Joshua White, Drew Gress, and Ches Smith (Playscape)....more