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Friday, June 18, 2021

Ochs/Robinson Duo A Civil Right (ESP-Disk, 2021) ****½

By Stuart Broomer

Saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Don Robinson have enjoyed a long musical partnership, dating from their joint membership in Glenn Spearman’s Double Trio in the early 1990s. Since then, Robinson has been a regular member, with Scott Amendola, of Ochs’ Drumming Core, while as a duo, Ochs and Robinson have previously released The Throne in 2015.

Only strong affinity could sustain so long a partnership, and it’s evident in the first moments of the opening improvisation, “Arise the Poet.” Ochs establishes immediately that he’s a poet of myriad voices, from a shofar-like call to prayer, to a burst of signature free jazz squall, to a lower register blast. The unflappable Robinson seemingly reacts to none of this, gradually creating a moving, rolling set of rhythmic possibilities, at first seemingly attendant only to itself. As the sustained piece assembles, Ochs explores various paths through the fields of shifting rhythms and sonorities that Robinson presents, including cymbal taps against snare pattern, all of it admirably lucid and almost ceremonial as Ochs creates an episodic narrative, finding a timbre, wedding it to a phrase, developing the pattern through incremental shifts in dynamics then making wholesale changes. There’s a long stretch in which he lights on a kind of Caribbean nocturne, absolutely lucid, with hints, too, of the Eastern Mediterranean as well, but utterly unexpected in terms of its beginnings, and limpidly majestic enough to suggest, say, Webster and Hawkins essaying “La Rosita,” than Ochs’ likelier references to Coltrane, Shepp and Ayler.

Robinson’s “Yesterday and Tomorrow” begins with bursts and splashes of cymbals before Ochs enters on sopranino with a melody suspended between the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Only lightly accompanied by Robinson, it’s the gentlest exploration, piping highs and Morse code rhythms, music oddly piquant and sweet.

There’s a military roll and an aligned insistence at the outset of Robinson’s “A Civil Right,” and a truncated, martial, if still slightly reflective, melody. Ochs slips from warm, low blasts to hollowed-out, upper-register shrieks as he develops his tale, a kind of blues-drenched lament, as resolute as sorrowful, as laconic as it is rich in inference, Robinson essentially keeping time, as sparely as possible, time as witness, as Ochs ultimately contrasts upper-register eloquence with low-register sighs.

Ochs’ “The Others Dream” is an extended exploration on tenor, announced with the briefest of melodies on sopranino. It builds through forceful shouts and truncated moans, gradually assembling power with Robinson’s building drums. Eventually Ochs unrolls a powerful, secure voice, bending modal phrases in his lower register until there’s a rare oratorical power resembling no one other than Ochs himself, gaining in force and focus until the ever-supportive Robinson comes to the fore in a solo of militaristic precision and economy. When Ochs returns, he’s on sopranino, pressing the high-pitched horn through bending phrase and high-pitched cries to a muffled middle-register episode that sounds like the murmurs of nesting birds before Robinson plays it out to the conclusion.

Ochs’ concluding “Regret” seems more reflective than regretful, a ballad-tempo tenor meditation that serves to encapsulate a sometimes stark, brilliantly focussed program.

While the saxophone-and-drums format may suggest a certain excess, Ochs and Robinson invert the expectation, creating profoundly elegiac music with an economy that only magnifies its power. Recorded in 2018/19, it might suggest a Trump-era Jeremiad; heard in 2021, it’s larger than that: wise survivors reassembling, still whole, facing the difficult prospects of renewal.