Jack Mouse and Scott Robinson – Snakeheads and Ladybugs [TrackList follows] – Tall Grass

Jack Mouse and Scott Robinson – Snakeheads and Ladybugs [TrackList follows] – Tall Grass TG 8282, 50:42 [1/6/15] ****:

(Jack Mouse – producer, drums/ Scott Robinson – tenor and C-melody saxophone, cornet, E-flat clarinet)

Multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson has taken jazz around the world for the U.S. State Dept.; performed for a U.S. president; taught at Berklee College of Music; recorded Louis Armstrong tribute material; headlined a Sun Ra festival; and has championed obscure horns so more people will appreciate what some little-used instruments can do in modern jazz. Robinson’s latest outing, Snakeheads & Ladybugs, continues his outward-bound perspective on jazz: the past is important, but so is looking toward the horizon.

The 50-minute, 12-track Snakeheads & Ladybugs is unique. Essentially, it’s a freely-improvised duet project featuring Robinson (who switches between tenor and C-melody saxophone; cornet; and E-flat clarinet) and drummer Jack Mouse. The two have been friends for decades (they began playing together in the 1980s) and have previously collaborated on other records. The idea for this music gestated for a while before gelling into actuality. The result flows with improvisational communication. Some might lump this as avant-garde or free jazz, but it’s effectively a mutual exploration concept, where spontaneity is the rule. While the format is as wide open as possible, this does not mean this is difficult or diffident music. On the contrary, there are moments of radiance; melodic and harmonic beauty; and auditory inclines which drift from cinematic to boppish, and from funk-oriented to bolero. Turmoil does not run unbridled, and jazz conventions are not thrown to the floor, although this is unconstrained jazz.

Several unobtrusively percolating pieces may be the ones to draw in wary listeners. The seven-minute title track combines Mouse’s impeccable percussion—which includes tuned drums which create sublime tones—with Robinson’s C-melody sax, which merges the body of a tenor sax with the nimbleness of an alto sax. “Snakeheads & Ladybugs” is comprised of longer statements which utilize traditional harmonic and melodic elements which are redistributed inventively. Mouse proves throughout this number he is more than a rhythmic accompanist and is an integral musical partner. His sticks, toms and cymbals provide a footing for the sax, but he also has a melodic temperament. The opening cut, “Flutter,” is aptly titled. Robinson’s breathy tenor sax floats around, beside and atop Mouse’s percussion. Mouse often produces a swishing sound or a ticking pulse via his cymbals, which abet this tune’s luminous quality. Mouse’s hand percussion—which evokes a tabla—sets the tone for “Orcan,” so-named because of how Robinson’s sax sometimes echoes a whale in the ocean. While this selection starts out atmospheric, it alters midstream into something dynamically overt which most likely would appeal to free jazz stalwarts rather than conventional jazz fans.

It’s the explicitly liberated work which will attract free jazz enthusiasts. Examples include three cuts which, if deciphered, contain dance-linked segments. “Bolero Incognito” matches Robinson’s tenor sax with Mouse’s percussive accents. Mouse is prominent in how he employs his floor tom as a bass counterpoint to his trap drum, and later concentrates on just cymbals, while Robinson pivots on his horn. It’s not easy to find a bolero theme, but Mouse states there is one hiding in there somewhere. Evidently there is a soulful, funk connection to “Funk Infestation,” where Robinson swaps to cornet. But the rhythmically-rich realization is less James Brown and more akin to Don Cherry or Lester Bowie.

For “Fandango,” which Mouse designates a “sort of broken rhumba” in his liner notes, Robinson moves to E-flat clarinet, which provides extended tones which are both picturesque and incandescent. Mouse distills the rhythm to the basics, directing his dexterity to his toms, which at times have a martial mannerism. Other highlights embrace material which has historical impetus. The brief “Two-Minute March” (yes, it is only two minutes in length) has a touch of New Orleans, thanks to Mouse’s tempo, while Robinson’s tenor sax shifts from a Southern nature to a Northern dissonance. “Backward Glance” has a give-and-take approach inspired, says Mouse, by the teaming of Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. This tune swings, not in a time-honored way, but rather in an unrestricted mode which is modern but not undisciplined. The final piece, “FreeBop,” unites—as the title suggests—both bebop and an uninhibited predisposition. Mouse’s scorching cymbals push this forward and Robinson’s propelled sax also fuel this combustible concluder. Snakeheads & Ladybugs may be intended for an audience who welcomes music which ranges far from a straightforward stance, but those who are usually disinclined towards the term free jazz may want to give this a try. Steve Yates recorded, mixed and mastered this release, and did a fine job capturing the session’s nuances. His microphone placement and his detailed involvement help escalate the quietest percussive shades and subtlest horn sounds. [The Amazon link is only for the MP3 download because they don’t have the CD, but I would think with all the subtle variety of percussion hearing the full frequency original would be important…Ed.]

TrackList: Flutter; Bolero Incognito; Backward Glance; Two Minute March; Orcan; Dual Duel; Funk Infestation; Snakeheads & Ladybugs; Shapeshifter; Scorch; Fandango; FreeBop.

—Doug Simpson

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