Tunis Phantom by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Tunis Phantom 
Azure Miles Records

As is often the case with a Michael Robinson release, two long-form compositions are presented of dramatically contrasting character. Of course the California-based composer's distinct sensibility permeates both, and consequently the works, though markedly different in style and structure, are immediately identifiable as Robinson creations. Constructed as always with his custom-designed meruvina, both pieces evidence his singular compositional style, even if one's an action-packed, multipart construction and the other a peaceful, long-form meditation.

A new wrinkle distances this recording from its predecessors, however, namely the addition of organ (Hammond in the title piece and Optigan the second) to the ensemble of instrument sounds Robinson customarily uses. His connecting of the Hammond organ's timbre to Steve Winwood's playing in Blind Faith isn't off-base either when the keyboard's sound so powerfully evokes the psychedelic haze of ‘60s, and especially when Robinson integrates the organ into compositions where Eastern and Western characters are so seamlessly conjoined. His contention that the two works “take the organ places it's never been before” might at first seem an overstatement, yet it turns out the claim might be accurate after all, simply because the contexts on this recording are so unlike others in which it's appeared.

Robinson's that rare creature who calls California home but whose music is deeply informed by Eastern practice, Indian music above all. It's as common for him to thread a hip-hop-influenced rhythm into a compositional design as use an Indian raga as a foundation. The array of percussion instruments he includes testifies to that global span, with Western drums and cymbals featured in the recording's title work alongside a collective swarm of dawul, madal, doholla, doira, taiko, dholak, ghatam, and tabla elements. In addition to those instruments and Hammond organ, two tambouras play a critical role in the work's unfolding. Thirty-eight minutes in total, it's structured in four parts, the durations of each similar and averaging nine-and-a-half minutes apiece. The material's Indian character is evident immediately in the tamboura-generated drone with which its opening part, “Alap,” begins; mere seconds pass, however, before the organ appears, its presence instantly producing a shift in the impression the music makes on the listener.

The intro acts as a cadenza-like showcase for the organ, which ends when “First Gat” appears eleven minutes in to abruptly reset the mood and tempo, the pace picking up and, with the folding in of drum and percussion elements, the activity level intensifying. Though an unusual nine-beat drum pattern is used, the material exudes an undeniable funkiness, and muscularity, too, when the unrelenting thrum of percussion instruments is factored in. Just as suddenly, part two gives way to “Second Gat,” the tempo accelerating even faster and the focus shifting to a furious percussion duet involving tabla and an army of dawul, madal, doholla, taiko and doira skin bols. As wild as that section is, the concluding “Third Gat” is wilder still, Robinson himself likening the music's frenzied presentation to horses galloping.

The half-hour calm of the midnight raga-like setting that follows naturally comes as something of a relief after the title work's ever-mounting intensity. In Stars Blossom, an unusual element emerges in what resembles vinyl surface noise but is actually sound produced by the Optigan organ, an early electronic instrument whose sound-generating internal tapes deteriorate over time. Percussion is absent, Robinson opting instead for a simpler arrangement of organ, organ bell, voice, marimba, and vibraphone, and the sequential changes in the opening piece are eschewed for an overall meditative concentration. Consistent with that, the presentation is dreamlike, the music's trance-inducing quality enhanced by a subtle pitch waver. While the tone of the second piece is diametrically opposed to the opener, organ is again deployed as a soloing voice throughout the presentation.

Each Robinson release is a natural outgrowth of the one preceding it, such that a through-line of sorts could be identified that extends across decades; in that regard, Tunis Phantom is a natural sequel to last year's Ocean Avenue and a stellar addition to Robinson's amazing discography. At some future date, one imagines some enterprising young graduate student in a university music program will discover how effective Robinson might be as a subject for academic study. Said student will quickly realize that the composer's body of work lends itself to an incredible case study of artistic evolution, not just in terms of the impact of technological advances on the music's character but most importantly artistic development.

June 2019

textura is a Canadian music publication