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From free jazz to electro-acoustic soundscapes

Sax player thrives on collaborative influences

Jason Robinson, whose “Cerberus Reigning’’ is second in a series of three solo releases, is a visiting assistant professor of jazz and popular music at Amherst College. Jason Robinson, whose “Cerberus Reigning’’ is second in a series of three solo releases, is a visiting assistant professor of jazz and popular music at Amherst College. (Charles Quigg)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2011

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When it comes to experimental minded jazz, the 1970s is far too often the forgotten decade, washed down the memory hole by the rise of hard-bop-loving Young Lions of the ’80s. Though saxophonist Jason Robinson wasn’t born until the ’70s were half over, he has honed a capaciously creative body of work largely inspired by seminal, decade-defining conceptualists such as pianist Anthony Davis and trombonist George Lewis.

Robinson performs Thursday at the Lily Pad with The Outnumbered, a rambunctious combo featuring a stellar cast of Boston improvisers, including saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase, pianist Josh Rosen, and drummer Curt Newton. It was through a shared connection with 1960s free jazz pioneer John Tchicai that Kohlhase and Robinson first bonded. As a teenager in the early 1990s, Robinson religiously attended a weekly jam session led by Tchicai in Sacramento.

“When I started to get to know Charlie, we figured out that he performed with Tchicai at the same club about a year after I left the area,’’ says Robinson, 35.

While American avant-garde jazz isn’t usually noted for its sense of humor, the quartet dubbed itself The Outnumbered as a self-mocking gesture rather than from a besieged sense of desperation, after a debut performance drew fewer audience members than musicians on stage (a ratio that has not repeated itself). Despite bassist Jef Charland joining the fray Thursday, The Outnumbered started as a bass-less quartet, and the music continues to be marked by that unusual instrumentation.

“The otherworldly quality of Paul Motian’s trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano is a big point of reference,’’ Robinson says. “The bass frequencies are still down there and have to be covered, but the roles of the instruments have to shift.’’

A cooperative combo in which most of the members contribute compositions, The Outnumbered also owes a large debt to Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concept, a rigorous but abstruse improvisational approach that posits radical equality between musical elements.

“Charlie has all of these tunes he developed for The Explorers Club and with Tchicai, melody-driven pieces that are in time, but the time can shift,’’ Robinson says. “Josh brings in pieces that are incredibly lyrical. I’m bringing in stuff I’ve explored with Cosmologic,’’ a longstanding cooperative quartet with Skeleton Key Orchestra percussionist Nathan Hubbard that’s performed several times at Lily Pad.

The opportunity to pursue The Outnumbered arose in 2008 when Robinson accepted a faculty gig at Amherst College. Designed for an artist-scholar, the tenure-track position keeps him busy working both sides of the street. As an academic, he explores the shifting relationships between cultural identity and improvised and popular musical forms. His work as a performer is equally expansive.

Last year, he released a disparate triptych of recordings, each revealing an intricately detailed, often enthralling musical world. On “The Two Faces of Janus’’ (Cuneiform), he matches wits with a superlative rough-and-tumble New York ensemble featuring bassist Drew Gress, guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummer George Schuller, and guest reed players Marty Ehrlich and Rudresh Mahanthappa.

His solo session, “Cerberus Reigning’’ (Accretions), named after the three-headed dog of Greek mythology, is Robinson’s second installment in a trilogy exploring sweeping electro-acoustic soundscapes on saxophones, flute, and laptop. And “Cerulean Landscape’’ (Clean Feed) documents his incisive duo with long-time collaborator Anthony Davis, the pianist and composer best known these days for his ambitious operas.

“The thing I really love about Jason is his aesthetic is very firmly rooted in 1960s and ’70s new music,’’ says Kohlhase, who also performs Saturday at Outpost 186 with cellist Junko Simons and drummer Laurence Cook. “When I first started hearing his music I was pleased and impressed to encounter a younger jazz musician who not only knew who Anthony Davis and George Lewis are, but had absorbed a lot of their ideas and made them his own.’’

Weaned on psychedelic rock by his father, a professional guitarist and songwriter active on the Northern California scene in the 1960s and ’70s, Robinson gravitated to the music of R&B pioneer Louis Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, and Charlie Parker as an aspiring musician.

Always looking to extend jazz practices, he cofounded the hip-hop jazz combo Cannonball, and introduced saxophone to the roots reggae band Groundation. Robinson experienced an epiphany when fellow saxophonist Marco Eneidi introduced him to the roiling music of avant-garde piano patriarch Cecil Taylor. Looking to develop improvisational and compositional ideas beyond straight-ahead jazz, he was drawn to the doctoral music program at the University of California San Diego by its heavyweight faculty members, particularly Davis and Lewis.

San Diego provided fertile ground for Robinson on and off campus. His connection with Groundation opened the door to recording collaborations with reggae giants such as Don Carlos, Eek-a-Mouse, and Toots and the Maytals, who featured him on the Grammy-nominated 2007 album “Light Your Light’’ (Fantasy).

“I feel uncomfortable with singularity,’’ Robinson says. “The musicians who turn me on the most are artists who have many sides.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

JASON ROBINSON and THE OUTNUMBERED

At the Lily Pad, Inman Square, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge, Thursday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. 617-395-1393, www.lily-pad.net