Jason Robinson’s Janus Ensemble Releases Jazz Album Tiresian Symmetry

On Sept. 25, Cuneiform Records will release Tiresian Symmetry, the latest album by Assistant Professor of Music Jason Robinson, featuring an expanded version of his Janus Ensemble. Robinson, who composed the eight interrelated songs and plays tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and alto flute, describes the album as “my most ambitious project to date.”

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Jason Robinson's Janus Ensemble

The other players on the album include Hampshire College Professor Marty Ehrlich, Drew Gress, George Schuller and Liberty Ellman—the core members of the Janus Ensemble, with whom Robinson created the album The Two Faces of Janus in 2010. In addition, the new album features JD Parran, Marcus Rojas, Bill Lowe and Ches Smith. Having worked with most of these esteemed musicians before, Robinson says, he kept their personal strengths and styles very much in mind during his composition process. 

“Oftentimes, I’ll describe myself as a composer who composes for improvisers,” he says. “I come from a musical tradition that really values the agency [and] individuality of the performer. So the kinds of improvisational structures that I build into my pieces are very much about those particular improvisers being able to do something different each night, if they choose—take a wildly different direction. … When you perform it, the goal is surprise: surprise yourself, surprise the audience, take a journey in the music.”

The ensemble (or various members thereof) will perform a series of CD-release concerts later this fall, including gigs at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Conn (Nov. 30); Baltimore’s Windup Space (Dec. 2); and Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab (Dec. 18), with more shows to be announced.

“The notion of narrative and storytelling has always been very central to jazz and other forms of African-American music. In jazz, we often say, when you’re improvising and you’re taking a solo, you have to tell a story,” Robinson says. “Several years ago, Greek [and Roman] mythology started to capture my attention. What if I was able to take some of these stories that I found so intriguing and use them as a way to sort of nudge listeners towards different narrative levels in the music?” Following up on his first three mythologically influenced albums—Cerberus Rising (2009), Cerberus Reigning (2010) and The Two Faces of JanusTiresian Symmetry subtly draws from the many Ancient Greek stories of the soothsayer Tiresias. “The common trope within these stories about Tiresias is that he/she lived seven lives [and] that he/she had a kind of duality between male and female,” the composer explains. “So, that notion of seven and two became one of the primary structuring principles of the entire album,” noticeable in, for example, certain songs’ time signatures.

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Robinson on saxophone

A member of the Amherst College faculty since 2008, Robinson teaches, among other classes, two courses on jazz history and a seminar on improvised music that is part discussion and part performance. He’s also been known to sit in with campus jazz ensembles. He says he appreciates the diversity of perspectives that Amherst students bring to the study and performance of jazz, noting, “The kinds of conversations I have with students are directly tapping into the kinds of philosophical questions that I’m always contemplating as a composer and improviser and performer.”

Top photo © 2012 Scott Friedlander; bottom photo 2009 by Michael Klayman