Amherst Magazine

What's on His Playlist

Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson, a saxophonist with three new releases in 2010, writes about the music he’s been listening to lately:

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Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson (right)

In our current iPod era, when “shuffle” and “random” describe the ways we wander through massive personal digital libraries, I often crave the bygone era of an ancient digital technology: compact discs. One may encounter these rarities at boutique “vintage” shops in the hip part of town, betrayed by a handwritten storefront sign scribbled with a secret password: “used CDs.” When you walk into one of these oddities, you see glimmering circular surfaces of pure magic. Somehow, somewhere, someone developed a way of injecting the glorious intricacies of full-quality, 16-bit, 44100 kHz audio on the surfaces of those circular objects of aural joy. Oh, how one can long for those glorious days of warm digital audio! I know—this sounds ridiculous: “warm” and “digital” might as well be opposites. Indeed, there’s a sizable contingent of old-school audiophiles who prefer the warm analog sounds of records to the surgically precise sounds of digital audio. Luddites beware: we’ve come a long way from the days of analog purity!

Today, most listeners consume audio in the compressed form of the MP3, the ubiquitous file format associated with the Internet. The compression of MP3s does little for the wide-ranging timbral content of the music on my playlist. As a result, I’ve learned to adjust the “import settings” of my favorite digital music player to retain the original audio from the CDs. These settings require more disk memory space, but the rewards are well worth the additional gigabytes. Here are three recordings currently on my old-fashioned, CD-quality playlists.

Apex, from Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green (Pi Recordings, 2010), features several of my favorite jazz innovators. From a horn perspective, it’s amazing to hear such strikingly different yet complementary approaches to angularity and chromaticism. Mahanthappa has been at the forefront of merging improvisatory and performative approaches drawn from cutting-edge jazz and South Asian musical traditions.

What started as a journey into Flying Lotus’ latest album, Cosmogramma (Warp Records, 2010), took me back to his debut release, Flying Lotus (Plug Research, 2006). His grooves are fluid and organic, and his use of otherworldly sounds captivates the imagination; it’s science fiction sound experimentalism for the next hip-hop generation. Many of my favorite discoveries come from the recommendations of students. I learned of Flying Lotus from Maxwell Suechting ’11.

Saturn Sings is the latest from the Mary Halvorson Quintet (Firehouse 12 Records, 2010). Halvorson’s music is lyrical yet disjointed, simple yet complex, calm yet aggressive. I admire music that balances such seemingly disparate dimensions. I first heard Halvorson perform in person two years ago through the now-defunct Montague Phantom Brain Exchange. Since then I’ve been intrigued by her far-reaching musical vocabulary, which seamlessly combines Hendrix-era guitar fireworks, post-bop jazz chromaticism and a uniquely personal approach composed of wildly unexpected twists and turns.

Photo by Charles Quigg ’09